The other day I was attending a lecture by a scholar who is interested in architecture.
He spoke about why he considers façades to be the most important aspect of architecture given that this is what gets projected outward into the public realm.
Perhaps there is something neighbourly and civic-minded in this view.
Still, upon reflection, I think that the beauty of houses, buildings, tombs, and churches depends largely on the reverence shown toward what is inside.
The other day, my friend Ada and I were discussing the discovery of Indigenous children’s undocumented remains outside of the former residential school in Kamloops.
Ada is passionate about the Arctic and through her studies, research, and work is involved in cooperating with Inuit in the north with sensitivity, respect, and mutuality.
I could tell the news had shaken her and so I asked whether she had ever been to a First Nations cemetery.
“Yes, twice,” she said.
It was 2018 and Ada had just completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria. As a member of the Catholic Students’ Association, she joined four other students, led by university chaplain, former Anglican-turned-Catholic priest, Fr. Dean Henderson, on a cultural mission exchange to a First Nations reserve in British Columbia.
I was pleased to see Fr. Raymond de Souza’s piece in the National Post titled, “What happened at the Kamloops residential school was an offence against humanity.”
In it, he discusses the thought of Hans Jonas, a German Jewish philosopher about whom I wrote my undergraduate thesis.
Separately from that thesis but very much related to these themes, I wrote this short academic paper in 2017 about what it is that sets human persons apart from animals and machines.
One of my favourite classical texts is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In writing about the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch said his intention was not so much to write history as to write edifying moral biographies.
He said, “For I do not write Histories, but Lives; nor do the most conspicuous acts of necessity exhibit a man’s virtue or his vice, but oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities. Now, as painters produce a likeness by a representation of the countenance and the expression of the eyes, without troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to look rather into the signs of a man’s character, and thus give a portrait of his life, leaving others to describe great events and battles.”
In introducing the life of Lycurgus, Plutarch even admits, “Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman.”
Nevertheless, he has much to say about Lycurgus and his efforts “to make his people free-minded, self-sufficing, and moderate in all their ways.”
One section that I found particularly interesting is about burial. Here’s what Plutarch tells us:
One site I love to visit in Israel is David and Paula Ben Gurion’s tombs in the Negev.
Sitting with a group along some stone steps as we looked toward the tombs, our guide said, “The inscription on David Ben-Gurion’s tombstone has three dates on it – the date he was born, the date he died, and the date he made aliyah [immigrated to Israel]. Why does it have the date he made aliyah?”
Our guide was serious about prompting our reflection and gave many members of our group the chance to surmise. After everyone had had the opportunity to offer their interpretations, our guide offered his own:
“Aliyah was the first step. It was the decisive turning point in the drama of his life. It was the decision he made that significantly impacted and made possible all the others. What will your first step be?” he asked, as we sat for a few moments of quiet reflection in that desert shade.
And so, I’ll now ask you: What might the extra date be on your tombstone?
In Anne Fadiman’s book Ex Libris, she has a chapter in which she explores the delights of what she calls You-Are-There-Reading experiences.
I’ve never equaled the sensory verisimilitude of my friend Adam, who once read the ninth book of the Odyssey, in Greek, in what is believed to be the Cyclops’s cave, a Sicilian grotto Homerically redolent of sheep turds. But I have read Yeats in Sligo, Isak Dinesen in Kenya, and John Muir in the Sierras. By far my finest You Are There hour, however, was spent reading the journals of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first expedition down the Colorado River, while I was camped at Granite Rapids in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Ever since reading this, I have sought out my own You-Are-There-Reading experiences around the world. Naturally, some of these experiences have been at gravesites. There is nothing quite like reading poetry or correspondence aloud at a grave.