Death is a fact of life. Sayings like “rest in peace” and “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims” are euphemisms: they enable us to go on without thinking about death. Not thinking about death can help us cope, but let’s not imagine that we’re actually saying anything when we say these things.
I’ve been thinking about this for months, because my social media feeds are full of these words.
Rest in peace
The deaths of Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey of The Eagles have filled our Facebook with remembrances, typically something like “Glenn Frey wrote the soundtrack of my childhood. Rest In Peace.”
“Rest in peace” has an old Catholic origin (Requiescat in pace). But if you believe in heaven and hell, then (and I admit I am out of depth here), isn’t the soul supposed to be either out enjoying itself with all the other good souls or suffering eternal damnation? Where’s the resting? Apparently, “rest in peace” applies to purgatory, which some people believed is where the souls needed to go for a while before The Lord routed them appropriately. Do you believe in purgatory?
If you don’t believe in an afterlife at all, then what exactly is “rest in peace” supposed to mean? They’re dead, not resting. Why are you saying this?
“Rest in peace” is a mannerism, because we feel we need to say something — it’s a period at the end of any sentence about death. What it means, basically, is “He’s dead. It’s a shame, but we go on.” (It also means “I don’t want to talk any more about death, I don’t like it.”)
Thoughts and prayers
We have other mannerisms and euphemisms around death, especially when it’s ghastly and unthinkable. When somebody kills 20 children in Connecticut or 14 people in California or 30 people in Burkina Faso, or when 16,000 people die in Japan after an earthquake, we feel we must say something. Those who do not want to make a political statement about guns, terrorists, or nuclear power, but must say something, tend to say “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.”
Of course they are. And of course they say that they are. But what is this tweet-level comment supposed to mean? I think it means “I care.” That’s about it.
Praying is fine. Saying that you’re praying, on the other hand, is just inoculating yourself against criticism.
Thinking about death
If saying “rest in peace” or “thoughts and prayers” comforts you, good for you. But recognize that you are doing it to comfort yourself and include yourself in the group who are concerned. These words do nothing for the dead, and very little for the living.
Let’s do the hard work, here, and actually think about death. Imagine if there was no “R.I.P.” and no “thoughts and prayers” and you had to actually think about what you were saying. You might say something like this.
Alan Rickman gave me great joy, especially in Galaxy Quest. I miss him and his death makes me sad. At least we will always have his movies to comfort us.
David Bowie may be dead, but his music is immortal. His last album is a revelation.
The mass shooting in San Bernardino is an awful thing. I am going to think long and hard about the causes that enable people with these extreme and hateful views to be able to kill so many, so quickly. To honor the victims, I promise to work with my fellow members of Congress to find a solution that’s more carefully thought out than a 140-character tweet.