Death, Dying, Grief and Mourning

            "Death is always the same,
                               but each man dies in his own way."

Carson McCullers, Clock Without Hands, 1960


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An Anthology by  Adrienne Nater

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Death, Dying, Grief, and Mourning

in Western Literature


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Thucydides, The Speeches of Pericles, 431 BCE
The Funeral Speech: 41.3 – 46.2

Translation: H. G. Edinger

Death of Warriors:
Greek Soldiers

  Death of Warriors, Greek Soldiers:

          (41.3) “Such then is the city for which these men nobly fought and died deeming it their duty not to lose. It is only fitting that every one of us who survived those men, will want, for Athens, to continue the toil.

          (42) “And it is for this reason that I have dwelt at such length about our city, for I wanted to show that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who do not enjoy our privileges. And at the same time, I wanted to provide clear proof of the reality on which I based my praise.

          “The most important words have now been spoken. I have sung the praises of our city. The gallantry and the splendid achievements of these men and of others like them have adorned it. There are not many Greek cities whose praise could balance that of Athens without having the reality mock the words.

“Such a death as these men died seems to prove the bravery they showed, how it only begins to reveal itself at first, but how, in the final test, it stands there quite unshakeable. Some of the men may have had their shortcomings, but what we must remember above all is the valor with which they faced the enemy and fought in defense of their homeland. They have blotted out evil with good and rendered more service to the state than they ever did harm in their private lives.

          “None of these men became cowardly in battle thinking that he would like to survive to enjoy his wealth. None of them persuaded himself to avoid facing danger hoping that he might escape poverty and become wealthy. More than these concerns, they desired to punish the enemy, regarding such a hazard the most glorious of all. And they accepted it, determined to strike down the foe and to forget about everything else. Whether success or failure, both still uncertain, they left that in the hand of hope. But in action, when the reality of battle was before them they put their trust in themselves. They preferred to stand their ground and to die, rather than yield and save their lives. They fled, indeed, from the shameful word of dishonor, and with life and limb they stood the brunt of battle, and in the climactic moment of their lives they finished their task, not in the grip of fear, but at the height of glory.

(43) “These men conducted themselves in a manner worthy of our city. We who have survived may hope to have a safer life, but we must resolve to show the enemy a spirit that is no less courageous. And you must estimate the advantages of such a spirit not just by the speaker’s words — he could make a long story of what yourselves know as well as he — but by all the advantages to be gained by warding off the foe. You should rather fix your gaze every day on the greatness of Athens and become her devoted patriots. And when the vision of her greatness has inspired you, then reflect that all this has been achieved by men of daring, men who knew their duty, and in the hour of conflict were moved by a high sense of honor, men who would be ashamed to do poorly in their work. If they failed in an enterprise, they were resolved that, at any rate, their city should not find herself deserted by their valor but instead they gave the best offering it was in their power to give. They gave their lives for the common good and for themselves they won praises that will not grow old, the most distinguished of sepulchres — not the sepulchres in which they now lie, but where their glory is laid down in everlasting remembrance, to be recalled whenever crucial moments of decision and action arise in the future. When men are so renowned, the whole world becomes their gravesite. And it is not the inscriptions on their graves in their own land that commemorates them, but also in foreign lands there abides in every breast their unwritten memorial, planted in hearts rather than graven on stone.

“It is for you to make these men your models. Be convinced that to be happy means to be free and that to be free means to be brave. Therefore do not take lightly the perils of war. For it is the wretched and unfortunate who have the most reason to fear death, for they have little hope for better days, but rather those who fear a complete reversal of their lives during times of hardship and crisis. For a man of self-esteem, humiliation because of cowardice is more painful than death, when it comes unperceived while you maintain your self-confidence and shared hope.

(44) “For these reasons I shall not commiserate with the parents of the dead who are present here but rather to comfort them. They well know that they grew up in a world of many vicissitudes. It is good fortune for these men to have ended their lives in glory and for you to lament them. Their lives were balanced when death and happiness came to them simultaneously. I know that it is difficult to convince you of this, for you are going to be reminded of them often when you see the happiness of the living, the happiness that you once shared. Real grief does not come from being deprived of good things that one never experienced, but from the loss of something one is used to. You must find strength in the hope for other children, if you are still at an age to have offspring. These new children will not let you brood over those who are no more. And they will be a help to our city, both by not leaving places empty and by assuring her security. For it is impossible for a man to offer fair and impartial counsel about our affairs, if he has no children whose lives are not risked. But as for you who have passed your prime, I would ask you to count as gain the greater part of your life in which you have been happy, and to remember that what remains of it will not be long. And let your hearts be lifted up at the thought of the fair fame of these your sons. Love of honor is the only feeling that does not grow old. And the last pleasure when one is weak with age is not, as some say, making money, but having respect of our fellow men.

(45) “As for those of you here who are sons or brothers of the dead, I can see a great conflict awaits you. Everyone will naturally praise those who are no more. And even if you were to attain surpassing heroism, it will be a hard thing for you to be judged their equal or even having come near their virtue. For there is jealousy of the living because of rivalry. But once a man is no longer in one’s way, the honors he receives are sincere and no longer curtailed by jealousy.

(46) “I should also speak of womanly virtues thinking of those who henceforth will be widows. I will sum up all in a brief admonition. Not to fall below the standard that nature has set for you will be your greatest glory, and great, also, is that of a woman who is least talked about among men, be it in praise or in blame.

          “I have now spoken, as the law demanded, and said what I had to say.

Those we have buried here have been properly honored, and for the future, their children will be supported at the public expense until they come of age. This is the prize and the wreath the city offers, both to the dead and the bereaved, for the ordeals they have faced. For where the prizes offered for virtue are greatest, there you will also find the best citizens.

                “And now, having made due lament for your dead, you may depart.”



Adrienne Nater, 2008

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