Dublin Death Studies
Edited By Philip Cottrell and Wolfgang Marx
The essays incorporated into this volume share an ambitious interest in investigating death
as an individual, social and metaphorical phenomenon that may be exemplified by themes
involving burial rituals, identity, and commemoration. The disciplines represented are as
diverse as art history, classics, history, music, languages and literatures, and the approaches
taken reflect various aspects of contemporary death studies. These include the fear of death,
the role of death in shaping human identity, the ‘taming’ of death through ritual or aesthetic
sublimation, and the utilization of death – particularly dead bodies – to manipulate social
and political ends.
The topics covered include the exhumation and reburial of Cardinal John Henry Newman;
the funerary monument of John Donne in his shroud; the funeral of Joseph Stalin;
the theme of mutilation and non-burial of the corpse in Homer’s Iliad; the individual’s
encounter with death in the work of the German Philosopher Josef Pieper; the Requiem
by the Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford; the imagery of death in Giovanni Verga’s
novel Mastro-don Gesualdo, and the changing attitudes toward death in the writings of
5 | Identity and the Act of Dying: Sketching a Philosophical Perspective.
5 | Identity and the Act of Dying: Sketching a Philosophical Perspective
Preoccupation with this material arises from my work as translator of several books of the German philosopher Josef Pieper (1904-1997) for St Augustine’s Press (Indiana).1 What is most impressive in Pieper’s work is not only his scholarly grasp of the Western tradition of philosophy – from Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, right down to the most modern philosophers of the 20th century – but also his handling of the problems of faith. Pieper writes as a philosopher but makes no attempt to separate out his Christian belief in the role of a Creator. To any modern person who does not believe in a Creator/creature relationship, Pieper’s fundamental idea may seem gratuitous. His philosophy is always on the brink of theology. Yet we may ask to what extent he crosses the boundary between the two disciplines and whether it matters. How strict is this division between the disciplines, especially since both are involved not just with theories but with interpreting experience? Pieper himself is not concerned with rational proof but with evidence of a completely different kind. The sphere of lived experience of the transcendental can hardly be the preserve of any one discipline.
It is useful to introduce here some of the common ground shared by Josef Pieper and the Evangelical theologian of the same era, Rudolf Bultmann. While he bases much of his thinking on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Bultmann continually distinguishes between Heidegger’s ‘existentialia’ – the conditions of man’s actual existence insofar...
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