Knockin' on Heaven's Door

The Conceptual Movement of the Dead

How to Cite

Meakins, F. (1998). Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: The Conceptual Movement of the Dead. M/C Journal, 1(4).
Vol. 1 No. 4 (1998): Space
Published 1998-11-01

Funerals may often feel like false affairs, with praise being unduly assigned to the deceased and ceremony appearing overly pompous and meaningless. The dead become saints, and the living resentful. Yet amidst this criticism, an important function of the funeral and accompanying eulogy has been overlooked. Psychosociologists suggest that the purpose of the funeral is to provide a ritualised means of farewelling the dead (Griffin and Tobin 237). They claim that this activity is necessary to increase the social distance between the living and the dead, so whilst the deceased may die physically, the funeral provides the opportunity for the deceased to die socially. The deceased's distance from the living is increased as s/he is removed from the constraints of the forward direction of time, to being bound in the past (Ata 30). It is the existence of the dead in the past that forces the living to form a new relationship with the deceased. The funeral then becomes the focal point of the formation of this relationship which is one of separation, as the deceased is transferred from the surviving community to the place of the afterlife. Death is not merely physical distancing but also social and psychological distancing.

The eulogy exists in the funerary process as the point where aspects of the deceased's life are recounted to the audience. However, its function lies deeper than this narrative, reflecting the distancing process of the deceased -- a linguistic form of farewell. Linguistic devices adopted in the eulogy perhaps unwittingly mirror this process as language becomes social action. Obvious examples of the linguistic distancing of the dead can be found in the use of past tense, where the deceased's agency is consigned to the past; however, more interesting examples can be found in the metaphors relating to death. These metaphors construct two spaces for life and death, joining them through the event structure of a journey -- departure, travelling and arrival.

We are saying farewell to a really dear friend.

He passed away.

May she find peace in the place where she now rests.

In terms of the Cognitive Grammar theory of the metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson; Lakoff and Turner), these death metaphors produce two bounded regions of life and death through the target-source domain mapping of a journey. They all adopt a general STATES ARE SPACES metaphor, where life exists in the bounded region of "here" and death becomes the separate space of "there", to use deictic terms. In the context of the Christian funeral (where these examples were recorded), the theological spaces of "earth" and "heaven" (or even hell!) are correlated to the states of being alive or dead. A change of state thus becomes a change of space, and distance is created as a person dies. However, these three metaphors exist at different points in the event structure of the DEATH IS A JOURNEY metaphor. The first death metaphor "We are saying farewell .." exists at the beginning of the event structure, the point of departure, where goodbyes are said to the traveller. This distance between the living and the dead is increased if the journey is adopted as the actual source domain, "He passed away", where the dead exist in transit between the bounded regions of the living and the dead. Greek legends emphasise this part of the DEATH IS A JOURNEY metaphor with images of the dead being transported across the river Styx to the afterlife. The greatest distance between the living and the dead is created if the journey's destination is allocated to the source domain: "May she find peace in the place where she now rests". In this example, the deceased exists in the end of the journey, arrival in the space of death.

These metaphorical bounded regions of the living and the dead are manifested physically during the funerary process. Just as the deceased is metaphorically transferred to another space referred to as "heaven" in Christian funerals, the hearse transports the deceased to the physical place of rest, traditionally the cemetery. The living travel with the deceased on this journey, until the stage where the dead are lowered into the ground, creating a point of separation between the living and the dead. In this way, the funeral creates physical spaces for the living and the dead, constricting the dead to the graveyard and the ground.

Thus the social process of the funeral becomes filled with symbolism relating to the spaces of the living and the dead, and the movement of the dead out of the realm of the living. The DEATH IS A JOURNEY metaphor is heard in eulogies as a euphemism for referring to death, with the speaker of the eulogy linguistically creating distance between the living and the dead by constructing separate spaces for these states of existence. Physically, this journey is realised though the commitment of the deceased to the ground. The linguistic and physical creation of distance reflects the funerary process of social and psychological distancing, a social action which lies deeper than the apparent shallow accolades and praise that cause people to comment that they have arrived at the wrong funeral.

Author Biography

Felicity Meakins