The Art of the Eulogy: On ‘Dead People’

August 4, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 3 7 min read


Eulogies are our gifts to the dead. The late James Alan McPherson wrote one such eulogy for his student at the University of Virginia, Breece D’J Pancake. Pancake was an eccentric West Virginian, a “constitutional nonconformist.” A “lonely and melancholy man” who loved to drink and owned guns “of every possible kind,” he felt most at home outdoors. He wanted an independent study with McPherson and likely got it through sheer force of will and personality: “In an environment reeking with condescension, he was inviting me to abandon my very small area of protection.”

McPherson’s eulogy is the foreword for The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, the only book from the writer, posthumously published. Pancake’s suicide at 26 still feels like a shock to McPherson, whose eulogy is calm, not breathless; pensive, not certain. “Whatever the cause of his desperation,” McPherson writes, “he could not express it from within the persona he had created…How does one explain the contents of a secret room to people who, though physically close, still remain strangers?”

The differences between elegies and eulogies have often struck me as being both contextual and formal; and, ultimately, those differences are incidental. Forget that an elegy is supposed to be a lament and that a eulogy is supposed to contain praise; McPherson’s eulogy transcends the genre. Some of that might be owed to McPherson’s own literary genius; the rest we might ascribe to a careful teacher speaking about his student. His eulogy feels honest; it cuts through Pancake’s literary legend.

Yet many eulogies are not the result of mentorships, friendships, or family. They are the product of intimations of closeness. The recent deaths of David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Harper Lee, Prince, and other well-known figures have resulted in a multitude of remembrances and memorials. Grief pulls us even closer to the writers, performers, and other celebrities that we adore but don’t personally know.

In their new book Dead People, Morgan Meis and Stefany Anne Golberg complicate our understanding of the public action of eulogy. They offer eulogies for a unique cast, including Chinua Achebe, Osama bin Laden, Susan Sontag, and Kurt Cobain. Although the origin of the word “eulogy” is “to speak well,” Golberg and Meis interrogate that idea, and instead see how the “death of a fellow human being can be the opportunity to enter into that person’s life.” The traditional Aristotelian method of eulogy is to step back and consider someone’s life from a distance. Instead, the authors of Dead People dig in: “We’ve chosen to wear our bias on our sleeve. We’ve chosen to take these lives personally.”

Golberg and Meis pen alternating eulogies, some of which were published previously as standalone essays. The result is a book that is very much an anthology. Dead People is not a single narrative, thesis-driven work of non-fiction. In fact, the writers’ introduction to the work is their only action of framing, which results in the book having many different entry points. You don’t need to read Dead People front to back; its value lies within its stylish and substantive reconsideration of an ancient form.

A few entries can example how Meis and Golberg use eulogies as part prose-poems, part historical reconsiderations, and part philosophical treatises. The result is an intellectually entertaining and flexible book. Meis first considers the life of Christopher Hitchens, and consistent with his plan for the book, interrogates the man for his unflinching support of the Iraq war: “Hitch could never say it. There was something greater at stake for him. There was something that he valued more deeply, in this case, than he valued the truth.” It’s a clever way to craft a portraiture of Hitchens, as a man whose morality could exist on some other plane.

Unlike many subjects in the book, Meis actually knew Hitchens — they both wrote for Harper’s — and he examines Hitchens’s legendary atheism. Hitchens, he thinks, did not

…have the courage to confront the works of Simone Weil, and to read them with honesty and openness and a feeling for the greatness that is contained within her words. A person could read Simone Weil for a lifetime and never become a believer. But no honest person can read Simone Weil, truly read her, and maintain the position that religious belief is a phenomenon that can be dealt with solely in the mode of contempt. Christopher Hitchens was perfectly aware of this fact, which is why he never allowed himself genuinely to read the works of Simone Weil or genuinely to contemplate the paintings of Caravaggio or genuinely to recite the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, to pick a few random examples of greatness on this earth that, troublingly, cannot be disentangled from religion.

It’s a fantastic reading of the stubborn Hitchens, who “was a lover of argument and persuasion. He was a lover of being right and winning at any cost. This is what made him great.”

Meis’s eulogy for Osama bin Laden is equally thought-provoking. “The scariest thing about Osama bin Laden,” Meis thinks, “was his quietness and his calm.” That quietude became a culture, a cult: “The way the 9/11 attackers spent their lives as everyday members of American society in the months leading up to that day, the way they boarded the planes as normal men, the way they flew the planes deliberately into those towers — they are an outgrowth of the calm, detached violence that bin Laden personified.”

We find nothing to praise in a criminal like bin Laden, and yet Meis knows sustained dissection of the terrorist leader has become rote. Much more difficult is what happens we turn the lens of the eulogy on the audience, as when he considers the more public execution of Saddam Hussein in contrast to bin Laden’s burial at sea: “What does it do to one human being to celebrate the killing of another human being, whatever the circumstances? What happens inside you, how does it make you feel? Is that something you want to feel? Is it a way you want to be?”

I admit that those questions unsettled me, and that was perhaps the first moment I realized that Dead People is a special book. It should be noted here that Meis is a Catholic convert, although one comfortable with uncertainty (in an essay about his conversion, he writes “I believe in a God who can err all he damn well pleases, and probably does. Or not. How could I know?”). I mention this because there is a radical Catholic strain to these philosophical questions — perhaps a particularly Jesuit strain, in fact.

Elsewhere in Dead People, Meis shows his facility as a literary critic. His eulogy for John Updike includes a generous but perceptive observation about a scene from Rabbit at Rest: “You can’t overestimate how difficult it is to write about McDonald’s that well. You can only write like this if you really care about the experience, if you take it seriously. Updike took it seriously. By flattening his metaphysics, by letting everything be essential, Updike discovered a new richness.” He is equally spot-on about David Foster Wallace: “He wanted to get hold of what it’s like to be a person in this particular world without either dismissing the vast sea of commercial and popular culture we live in or pretending that we don’t often feel uneasy swimming around in that sea.”

Golberg’s half of Dead People leans cultural. She eulogizes Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47. He was a sickly child who studied poetry and whose family had been exiled to Siberia. Kalashnikov once said “I wanted to invent an engine that could run forever,” but he instead created an instrument of violence. Rather than simply take the easy approach of sullying him, Golberg wonders

Whether it’s a lawnmower or a locomotive or an AK-47, the inventor is always faced with the same burden — how to turn chaos into order. But the chaos the inventor faces is not only the chaos of nature; it is also the chaos of human desire. The inventor stands between these two forces, pulled in both directions, servant to both nature and man.

As Meis does with bin Laden, Golberg uses eulogies to not only complicate our understandings of her subjects, but also force us to look inward: “As much as inventions come out of the inventor’s hands, they are, in the end, form to the dark shapelessness of all life. Remember, [Mary] Shelley warned us in her story, inventors only give form to substance. They cannot bring into being the substance itself. The form of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s invention was an AK-47. But the substance of his invention is us.”

Another worthy subject is Mary Ellen Mark, who photographed “people who dwelled on society’s fringes: street kids, prostitutes, junkies, the homeless, women who were mentally ill.” Think Amanda and her Cousin Amy, the shot of a 9-year-old, one arm across her chest, standing in a kiddie pool, smoking a cigarette.

Golberg thinks “Mark’s genius was to capture the subtlety of a woman’s monstrosity: the errant scar, the odd slump of a body, the too-happy smile, the worldly-wise and cynical stare.” Mark’s photographs were affirmations of presence; she captioned each photo the same — “I exist.” She believed that even the photographer’s presence was necessary in the communion of the photograph, whether it be the shot’s angle, the subject’s pose, or even the reflection of the artist in the eyes of her subject.

That might be the central metaphor of Dead People: how we see the living in those who have passed. Golberg’s discussion of the enigmatic Sun Ra might be her purest act of praise. “Ideas and music carried a reclusive black boy from Birmingham and transported him into outer space.” Sun Ra chose jazz because it is the “music of the restless, the awakened.” He would tell his musicians “If you’re not mad at the world, you don’t have what it takes.”

Golberg considers how Arkestra, Sun Ra’s orchestra, intermingled “music, theatre, dance, philosophy” as they “combined the ancient and the radical future, African rhythms played with fists and synthesizers played with the elbows.” Sun Ra wanted unity, in both his band and in the performative connection with the audience. That required a measure of discipline in the tradition of W.E.B. DuBois and Elijah Muhammad, yet “discipline alone lacked, for Sun Ra, creative energy, vitality.”

As the authors of Dead People do best, Sun Ra becomes a vessel for a deeper discussion; “When morality expressed itself in beauty, daily life had a little more of that mysterious, mystical quality to it, a quality Sun Ra was always searching for to conquer the ‘unpleasant’ aspects of what it was to be human on Earth. Morality could make life sensible but beauty made life happy. Why wear only a black suit and tie when we have available to us all the colors of the rainbow?”

Essays about death should contain a lot of questions. Golberg and Meis’s approach to eulogies models a provocative but useful approach towards the eulogy form: the ability to empathize with and yet also tell the truth about those no longer with us. Let the dead bury the dead — but let the living eulogize them.

is a contributing editor for The Millions. He is the culture editor for Image Journal, and a contributor to the Catholic Herald (UK). He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and the Kenyon Review. He is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. Follow him at @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at