Does Tragedy Confer Dignity?

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the 2010 plane crash in which 96 people, including Poland’s then president Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, died.

They were en route to commemorate the 1940 Katyn Forest Massacre in which more than 20,000 Poles had been murdered by Soviets.

Those on the flight composed an official delegation and so many of the other crash victims were political, church, and military leaders in Poland.

I still remember a religious sister guiding me toward a monument commemorating victims of the crash in the Lublin cemetery. She whispered, “Some do not refer to this as the Smolensk disaster but rather as Katyn the Second.”

The details of the crash and who was to blame still remain a matter of investigation and controversy.

The President and his wife were buried in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.

Most of crypts there are designated for monarchs and saints, but there is a growing list of others including poets and military leaders.

I found it interesting to read about how Lech and Maria Kaczyński’s burial there was a source of controversy given that they were awarded such dignity due to having died in this tragedy.

Around the time of his burial, a Facebook group named, “No to Kaczynski’s burial in Wawel” had 26,000 people and another group named, “I want to be buried in Wawel too” had 5,000.

Of course, I am quite confident there could be compelling protests and debates among Poles over each historical figure buried in Wawel.

Nevertheless, while Kaczyński held the country’s highest office and had many accomplishments throughout his public service, it is an interesting question to consider: does tragedy confer dignity?

This question reminds me of a section about dignity in Robert Spaemann’s book, Essays in Anthropology: Variations on a Theme. In the section I have in mind, Spaemann discusses two kinds of dignity: first, the universal dignity that all human beings have in virtue of being human and secondly, the dignity that is a matter of distinction on the basis of virtue and moral heroism.

He says:

Starved in his bunker, Father Maximilian Kolbe had more dignity than the henchmen who took his life, yet he also had more dignity than the righteous man for whom he sacrificed his life. The heroism of holiness is the highest dignity to which human beings can aspire.

With the death in the Smolensk crash followed by the burial of Lech and Maria Kaczyński in Wawel, we see a third kind of dignity – dignity on the basis of tragedy. This dignity is neither the universal dignity of all mankind nor is it the dignity of one who is set apart for his or her moral righteousness. Further, it is not even the dignity of which we speak with respect to someone who holds a certain office since many other holders of similar officers are not dignified in the same way. What, therefore, is this dignity conferred by tragedy?

Some might dispute it altogether. Some might be indifferent to it. Yet, the question will confront any person who comes upon their imposing tomb at the Wawel Castle and Cathedral in Krakow, anyway.

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