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What the Greek classics tell us about grief and the importance of mourning the dead
The rites we give to the dead help us understand what it takes to go on living.
As the coronavirus pandemic hit New York in March, the death toll quickly went up with few chances for families and communities to perform traditional rites for their loved ones.
A reporter for Time magazine described how bodies were put on a ramp, then onto a loading dock and stacked on wooden racks. Emergency morgues were set up to handle the large number of dead. By official count, New York City alone had 20,000 dead over a period of two months.
Months later, our ability to mourn and process death remains disrupted due to the ever-present fear of the threat of the coronavirus and the need to observe social distancing.
As a scholar of classical studies, I tend to look to the past to help understand the present. Ancient literature, especially ancient Greek epics, explore what it means to be human and part of a community.
In the Greek classic “The Iliad," Homer specifies few universal rights, but one that emerges clearly is the expectation of proper lamentation, burial and memorial.
Valuing life in death
Homer's "Iliad" explores the themes of 10 years of war – the Trojan War – over a narrative that lasts around 50 days. It shows the internal strife and the struggles of the Greeks as they try to defend themselves against the Trojans.
It humanizes the city of Troy by emphasizing the scale of loss and suffering and not just the boastful nature of its kings and warlords.
The epic begins with the recognition that the rage of its main character, Achilles, on account of a slight to his honor, "created myriad griefs" for the Greeks and "sent many strong heroes to the underworld."
The epic's conflict starts when king Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, deprives the semi-divine hero Achilles of Briseis, an enslaved woman he was awarded as a prize earlier in the war.
Briseis is said to be Achilles' "geras," a physical token indicating the esteem his fellow Greeks have for him. The meaning of the word "geras" develops as the poem progresses. But as readers learn alongside Achilles, physical objects are essentially meaningless when one is going to die anyway.
By the end of the epic, physical tokens of honor are replaced in importance by burial rites. Zeus accepts that his mortal son Sarpedon can at best receive "the geras of the dead" when he is buried and mourned. Achilles too insists that mourning is "the geras of the dead" when he gathers the Greeks to honor his fallen comrade, Patroklos.
The epic ends with a justification for the burial of Achilles' opponent, Hector, the greatest of the Trojan warriors and another victim of Achilles' rage.
For Hector's funerary rites, the Greeks and the Trojans agree to an armistice. The Trojans gather and clean Hector's body, cremate him, and bury his remains below a monumental tomb. The women of the city tell the story of the brave hero in their laments.
This is its foundational narrative – that burial rites are essential to the collective work of communities. Failure to observe burial provokes crisis. In the Iliad, the gods meet to resolve the problem of Hector's unburied body: Achilles must quit his rage and give Hector's body back to his family.
A divine right
This narrative is repeated in other ancient Greek myths. Best known, perhaps, is Sophocles' "Antigone," a Greek tragedy dating from the 440s B.C. In this play, two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, are killed in their fight for control of the city.
Creon, their uncle, who takes over the city, forbids burial of one. The play's conflict centers around their sister Antigone, who buries her brother against the new king's wishes, consigning herself to death.
In opposing this basic right, Creon is shown to suffer in turn, losing his wife and son to suicide in the process. In response to the capital punishment of Antigone for performing the rites due to her brother, his son Haemon takes his life and his mother Eurydice follows him.
Properly honoring the dead – especially those who have died serving their people – is from this perspective a divinely sanctioned right. Furthermore, mistreatment of the dead brings infamy on the city and pollution. Plague often curses cities and peoples who fail to honor their fallen.
This is central to the plot of "The Suppliants," another Greek play telling us the story of the conflict between the sons of Oedipus, king of the Greek city of Thebes. In this play by Euripides, the Thebans refuse to bury any of the warriors who fought against their city. The crisis is resolved only when the Athenian hero Theseus leads an army to force them to honor the dead.
One of the most famous examples of classical rhetoric shares in the tradition of honoring the dead as a public duty. Greek historian Thucydides writes about the funeral oration of Pericles, who was a popular leader in Athens during the 430s B.C.
On the occasion of offering the "epitaphios," a speech over the fallen war dead, Pericles articulates his vision of the Athenians as standing against foreign threats in the past.
Memories of the past were an important guide to the future. This is in part why the funeral oration became so important in Athenian life: It provided an opportunity to explain why those lives were sacrificed in service of a shared civic mission and identity.
Communities of memory
Even today, memories are shaped by stories. From local communities to nations, the stories we tell will shape what we will remember about the past.
Researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predict that an estimated 200,000 people in the U.S. will have died from the coronavirus by Sept. 26 and some 400,000 by the year-end.
Many people who see loved ones die will deal with unresolved loss, or "complicated grief" – grief that results from not knowing what happened to one's loved ones or without having the social structures to process their loss. That grief has been compounded by the current isolation. It has prevented many from carrying out those very rites that help us learn to live with our grief.
Just recently, I lost my 91-year-old grandmother, Beverly Mjolsness, to a non-coronavirus death. My family made the hard decision not to travel across the country to bury her. Instead, we gathered for a video memorial of a celebration of a life well-lived. As we did so, I could see my family struggling to know how to proceed without the rituals and the comfort of being together.
Such grief that does not allow for collective in-person memorialization can turn into debilitating trauma. Our public discourse, however, when it has not tried to minimize the number of the dead or the continuing threat, has not sought to provide any plan for memorials, now or in the future.
What Homer and Sophocles demonstrate is that the rites we give to the dead help us understand what it takes to go on living. I believe we need to start honoring those we have lost to this epidemic. It will not just bring comfort to the living, but remind us that we share a community in which our lives – and deaths – have meaning.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.
- A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
- A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
- It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
How the Roman emperors got faced<a href="https://payload.cargocollective.com/1/6/201108/14127595/2K-ENGLISH-24x36-Educational_v8_WATERMARKED_2000.jpg" ><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTUzMzIxMX0.OwHMrgKu4pzu0eCsmOUjybdkTcSlJpL_uWDCF2djRfc/img.jpg?width=980" id="775ca" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="436000b6976931b8320313478c624c82" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lineup of emperor faces" data-width="1440" data-height="963" /></a>
Credit: Daniel Voshart<p>Voshart's imaginings began with an AI/neural-net program called <a href="https://www.artbreeder.com" target="_blank">Artbreeder</a>. The freemium online app intelligently generates new images from existing ones and can combine multiple images into…well, who knows. It's addictive — people have so far used it to generate nearly 72.7 million images, says the site — and it's easy to see how Voshart fell down the rabbit hole.</p><p>The Roman emperor project began with Voshart feeding Artbreeder images of 800 busts. Obviously, not all busts have weathered the centuries equally. Voshart told <a href="https://www.livescience.com/ai-roman-emperor-portraits.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Live Science</a>, "There is a rule of thumb in computer programming called 'garbage in garbage out,' and it applies to Artbreeder. A well-lit, well-sculpted bust with little damage and standard face features is going to be quite easy to get a result." Fortunately, there were multiple busts for some of the emperors, and different angles of busts captured in different photographs.</p><p>For the renderings Artbreeder produced, each face required some 15-16 hours of additional input from Voshart, who was left to deduce/guess such details as hair and skin coloring, though in many cases, an individual's features suggested likely pigmentations. Voshart was also aided by written descriptions of some of the rulers.</p><p>There's no way to know for sure how frequently Voshart's guesses hit their marks. It is obviously the case, though, that his interpretations look incredibly plausible when you compare one of his emperors to the sculpture(s) from which it was derived.</p><p>For an in-depth description of Voshart's process, check out his posts on <a href="https://medium.com/@voshart/photoreal-roman-emperor-project-236be7f06c8f" target="_blank">Medium</a> or on his <a href="https://voshart.com/ROMAN-EMPEROR-PROJECT" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">website</a>.</p><p>It's fascinating to feel like you're face-to-face with these ancient and sometimes notorious figures. Here are two examples, along with some of what we think we know about the men behind the faces.</p>
Caligula<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NDk4Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQ1NTE5NX0.LiTmhPQlygl9Fa9lxay8PFPCSqShv4ELxbBRFkOW_qM/img.jpg?width=980" id="7bae0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ce795c554490fe0a36a8714b86f55b16" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Caligula, left
Nero<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ2NTAwMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTQ2ODU0NX0.AgYuQZzRQCanqehSI5UeakpxU8fwLagMc_POH7xB3-M/img.jpg?width=980" id="a8825" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9e0593d79c591c97af4bd70f3423885e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="992" data-height="558" />
One of numerous sculptures of Nero, left
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.