by Kenneth G. Everett
“Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”
— William E. Gladstone, British Statesman
The respect with which a civilization honors its dead has long been a gauge of its adherence to the duties of humane behavior and the cultivation of virtue in its citizens. That respect has found expression in the veneration of deceased persons of exemplary character and achievement, and in the enduring gratitude tendered to those of past generations whose labors laid the foundation of a society’s prosperity and moral strength. From the pyramids of Egypt, to the tombs of ancient Greece and Rome, to the monuments to the dead of more recent times, we find inspiring evidence of the homage paid by great civilizations to their dead — homage extending from the towering monuments that honor national heroes to the simplest graves of common peasants.
And it bears remembering that none of these honored dead have been without spot. Each suffered some flaw of character or lapse of right conduct, however great or small. Nevertheless, in developed societies it has been the tradition that funeral panegyrics on the dead praise and celebrate the goodness of a life rather than defaming it, so that flaws and missteps in the person eulogized have been commonly abridged or passed over without mention. The same tradition comprehends the epitaphs engraved on tombs of the dead, be they in Westminster Abbey or in humble country churchyards. A survey of funerary epitaphs reveals a uniformity of praise for whatever was worthy in the entombed, with intent to ensure that the record of their good works and virtues of character might live on to become an inspiration and support to those who follow. The arc of an enduring civilization rises upon the best in its historical heritage of individual and collective merit — wherever in its history, and in whatever circumstances, that merit is found.