Is it moral to respect the wishes of the dead above the living? That was the question posed a couple of years ago by no less a personage than Barry Lam, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Vassar College, New York, Humanities-Writ Large fellow at Duke University in North Carolina, USA, and host and producer of philosophy podcasts. As mentioned in the last column, recent years have been witnessing a new trend of questioning the importance accorded to those who have crossed over to the other world. Barry Lam himself argues vociferously that there is a huge industry dedicated to executing the wishes of human beings after their death, especially wealthy people. “Through endowments, charitable trusts, dynasty trusts, and inheritance law, trillions of dollars in the US economy and many legal institutions at all levels are tied up in executing the wishes of wealthy people who died long ago. The UK does not fall far behind…”
In the US, Lam asserts, the wealthy continue to own and grow wealth after their death… And that’s not all. According to Lam, giving distant descendants enormous amounts of wealth is good only if they are not sociopaths. And yet, we allow such power to those who are no longer around to know about the world, and who cannot be harmed or benefited any longer from such spending… The irony of our current practices, Lam laments, is that we the living are to blame for sabotaging our own well being. The dead are not around to complain… “We do not need perpetual trusts to incentivise spending for charitable purposes. Many philanthropists today such as Bill Gates understand that there is a greater charitable impact from spending done within one’s lifetime, which is the foundation of the Giving Pledge. So why do we continue to give the dead such eternal rights? I believe we honour the wishes of the dead out of a misplaced sense of moral duty…”
Another reason we do this, Lam avers, is that we have a self-interested desire that our own interests and values be preserved by future people after our own death. “This existential fear we overcome by permitting institutions to honour the wishes of the dead in order to guarantee a place for our wishes in the future. But it is time to recognise the vanity and narcissism of the practice, and do what is actually best for the living, which is to have the living determine it for themselves.”
However, despite the emergence of new trends raising questions about the “rights of the dead”, Lam’s reasons are not everybody’s reasons. As an evolved sadhu I meet off and on pointed out after I apprised him of Lam’s arguments and other similar outpourings, “they’re fully entitled to have their reasons, but they’re missing out on important reasons such as love, caring, compassion and many other components vitally linked to the soul in this life and the other world which underline the importance of honouring those no longer in our midst.”
Wikipedia states that the veneration of the dead, including one›s ancestors, is based on love and respect for the deceased. “In some cultures, it is related to beliefs that the dead have a continued existence and may possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living… In Europe, Asia, Oceania, African and Afro-diasporic cultures, the goal of ancestor veneration is to ensure the ancestors› continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living, and sometimes to ask for special favours or assistance… Ancestor veneration occurs in societies with every degree of social, political, and technological complexity, and it remains an important component of various religious practices in modern times.”
In India, during the Pitri Paksh which is currently underway, the practice of performing shraadhs, tarpan and other ceremonies for the well being and peace of departed loved ones and/or other departed souls is widespread. Shraadhs are performed during the Pitri Paksh days to appease the pitras and to seek their blessings. In fact, it is believed that Pitri Dosha arises and miseries result when departed souls are not accorded respect and honour. The help of mantras and stotras like the Pitru Dosha Nivaran Mantra or Stotra is also often invoked to prevent and remove Pitri dosha. Significantly, there are particularly brisk sales of the Pitru Dosha Nivaran Stotra CD on Amazon and other websites during the Pitri Paksh period.
Finding a culture or religion or family which does not pray or wish for peace or conduct ceremonies for departed souls would be a hard task even in today’s “modern” times, no matter where in the world. For instance, the traditional month-long Buddhist and Taoist Ghost festival when “people shy away from business deals, wedding dates, surgery, and other activities that might affect their luck” was held recently in August . “Ghost Month” is a popular tradition that is widely observed in countries such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. Robert Requintina, quoted excerpts in the Manila Bulletin from an exclusive interview in Mandaluyong City with Master Hanz Cua, Asia’s youngest feng shui master : “During this period, the Gates of Hell are sprung open and the hungry ghosts or lost souls will roam around to visit their families or find victims among the living. In the ghost month, our goal is to make the hungry ghosts happy…If you make the lost souls happy, they will bring you wealth. The more paper money you burn, the more wealth you will receive. Prayers are also very important,” he said.
It is believed that disasters and other tragedies are likely to happen during the ghost month, wrote Robert Requintina, and cited amongst many instances, the 9/11 terror attacks on US (2001); death of Princess Diana of Wales in Paris, France (31 August 1997);… the Bocaue, Bulacan pagoda tragedy that left 266 people dead (2 July 1993); the killer earthquake that rocked Baguio City and other parts of the country on 16 July 1990 which trapped and killed some 1,000 people…etc.
As Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz wrote in The Issa Valley, “The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.” Chilean novelist Isabel Allende wrote in Eva Luna, “There is no death, daughter. People die only when we forget them, ‹my mother explained shortly before she left me. “If you can remember me, I will be with you always.” And as poet Thomas Campbell wrote more than a century ago, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” As long as the departed continue to live in our hearts, the question of whether it is moral to respect the wishes of the dead above the living will remain meaningless.