I was recently at a conference for one of the professional philosophical organizations in the U.S., the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). As a part of the business meeting, SPEP regularly honors its members who have died in the last year. This year, there were four eulogies given at the business meeting, which were delivered by SPEP members who were friends or colleagues of the deceased. On the whole, they were beautifully delivered, touching and sensitive accounts that both summarized the academic careers and achievements of their honorees and offered tender and personal anecdotes which, for those of us who didn't otherwise know of the departed, humanized them and painted a richer picture of the lives of people who generally are reduced to their teaching appointments and publications.
After the business meeting, I heard several people complain that the eulogies took up the greatest segment of time in the business meeting. First, let me say that most of the items on the agenda of these business meetings are pro forma. That is to say, it is not as if the eulogies displaced some other crucial piece of "business." But, more importantly, I'm worried about this complaint on a deeper level. SPEP is an organization that, in my view, is fortunate to still be small enough to recognize its members' passings every year. (Outside of a church congregation, I can't think of many other small communities that are able to honor the loss of their members in such a way.) And I think that the work of mourning is underdeveloped and underappreciated in our society. My deep concern is that we don't know how to mourn our dead, and the complaints that I heard only confirmed my suspicion.
Why is it that the current administration is so passionately invested in prohibiting images of war casualties? Why is it that "Ground Zero" is still not much more than a hole in the ground? We have a seriously stunted ability to mourn, and my impression has been that Americans are far more invested in burying the past than reckoning with it. I was tremendously impressed with the SPEP eulogies (especially Linda Martin Alcoff's eulogy of Iris Marion Young) and I am troubled by the fact that some would prefer that less time is provided for this work instead of more time. The work of mourning is hard work, but it is fundamentally and essentially human work... it's part of the work of being human, of being a part of a human community, of dealing with the finitude and precariousness of human existence. One would think, in an organization calling itself the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy, that the work of mourning would warrant more reverence.
On only one occasion have I been afforded the opportunity to deliver a eulogy. It is a monumentally difficult task. A task, I suspect, that many fear, if not actively avoid at all cost. We are poorer for it.