Mourning Rights: Beowulf, the Iliad, and the War in Iraq

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Author: Robin Norris
Date: Summer 2007
From: Journal of Narrative Theory(Vol. 37, Issue 2)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,936 words

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[(essay date summer 2007) In the following essay, the circumstances of the Iraq War prompt Norris to reflect upon the contemporary significance of Beowulf and the Iliad and what they have to say about death, immortality, and mourning.]

The Iliad speaks to the way we think about war, because the one impulse that has proved as enduring as human beings' urge to make wars is their need to make sense of them. The first step in making sense of any such loss is to mourn the dead. Nothing is more crucial to approaching Homer and the arts that come from war than thinking back on loss. Bereavement and mourning are things we come to know firsthand in life, sooner or later. Perhaps we learn them most efficiently through war. The Iliad has death and mourning in abundance, and the poetry it offers is the only enduring consolation. Homer finds significance in his war, as later poets would in theirs, by moving from the present moment to other points in time, juxtaposing the here and now with the past and future.--James Tatum, The Mourner's Song (xi)

Much is at stake in the afterlife of literature. Through its episodic focus on individual experience, heroic poetry gives us a means to process the magnitude of the loss of human life entailed in war. In an attempt to explain the world's failure to respond to contemporary genocide, Paul Slovic has recently demonstrated that the average person feels the greatest affect--and is therefore most likely to act--in response to the experience of one individual in crisis. Not only do we cease to feel when presented with the suffering of thousands; our affective response to just two individuals is markedly lower than the response to one. We honor the individual, but we are incapable of maintaining the same respect for the plurality. Likewise, we may not mourn for the countless Greek soldiers buried in a mass grave on the shore near Troy, but we grieve with Achilles for Patroclus, and with Priam for Hector; we may not mourn for the extinction of the Geatish nation, but we grieve with the meowle, the "woman" who bemoans her fate at Beowulf's pyre.

Although Homo sapiens may not be the only species to experience or express bereavement, and we are certainly not the only species whose loss deserves to be mourned, we seem to be the only ones writing poems of remembrance for one another. Thus, while I have not met Patroclus or the Geatish meowle, the poetry of Homer and the Beowulf-poet has invited me to remember them, and to participate in the shared community of mourners at epic's end. Transmitting sorrow through the technology of poetry is an experience unique to human beings, to being human, and reading such texts subjects us to a contagious mourning that allows us to weep for individuals we've never met, and who may have never even existed. If the study of the humanities can provoke an affective response to the plight of individuals long dead, even fictional ones, then perhaps the humanities will someday teach us to respond more fully to the real suffering of our contemporaries, the victims of force, of war, or genocide.

Mourning Past and Future

In The Iliad or the Poem of Force, Simone Weil defines 'force' as "that which makes a thing of whoever submits to it" (45). "Exercised to the extreme," she explains, "it makes the human being a thing quite literally, that is, a dead body" (45). Mourning for death, the conversion of human into thing, takes place through remembrance of the past, by recalling the time when the thing was still a human. In his famous essay "Mourning and Melancholia," Freud explains the importance of memory to the work of mourning when he writes, "Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object is brought up and hypercathected" in order to attenuate emotional attachment to the dearly departed (244). Thus, mourning is a natural process that requires a temporary focus on the past. A diagnosis of melancholy may apply to those whose attachment to the past has become permanent, and therefore pathological, as Julia Kristeva explains:

Riveted to the past, regressing to the paradise or inferno of an unsurpassable experience, melancholy persons manifest a strange memory: everything has gone by, they seem to say, but I am faithful to those bygone days, I am nailed down to them, no revolution is possible, there is no future ... An overinflated, hyperbolic past fills all the dimensions of the psychic continuity.(60)

In short, the healthy result of the grieving process is to decathect these memories of the past in order to return to life in the present, and to life without the human person who has been lost. For many mourners, therefore, we would expect the grieving process, which takes communal form through the funerary ritual, to require remembering the past. Through remembrance, Weil's thing continues to be remembered by humans as human, through the only afterlife we may be guaranteed: the one we humans create for our own.

Weil argues further that, as a result of his relationship to force, the warrior develops an unnatural experience of the future: "It is true that every man is destined to die and that a soldier may grow old in battles, but for those whose soul is bent beneath the yoke of war, the connection between death and the future is not the same as for other men. For others, death is a limit imposed on the future. For soldiers, it is the future itself, the future their vocation allots" (58).

The afterlife of reputation is therefore of particular interest to a warrior, for if his death in war is certain, the only possible outcome is posthumous, whether glory or obsolescence. In this community, those who face death together in battle also shepherd one another into the afterlife. Thus, what we often find in heroic literature, in texts including both the Iliad and Beowulf, is the warrior mourned by his fellow warriors through remembrance of the past.1

The funeral of Beowulf himself provides an interesting case study, as it is an event populated by numerous mourning warriors who have largely been ignored by Anglo-Saxonists. As his last wish, Beowulf tells Wiglaf:

Bid those renowed in battle to build a bright mound at the sea's cape after the pyre; it will tower high on Hronesness as a memorial to my people, so that afterwards seafarers will call it Beowulf's barrow.(2802-7a)2

Not only does Beowulf wish to be remembered, but it is the heaȝomare, "those renowned in battle," whom he wishes to conduct his funeral. Of course, cremation of a body in this manner took no small amount of effort.3 Then, during the ten-day period following Beowulf's cremation, the Geats construct Beowulf's barrow, per his own request, as a memorial to him. In fact, a second, final ceremony is held at least ten days after the initial funeral in seventy-five per cent of cultures; this two-stage model helps to structure the mourning process by setting a time limit on the grieving period, to encourage mourners to return to life in the present (Rosenblatt 92).

After the mound is constructed, twelve warriors ride around the barrow and share memories of their fallen lord:

Then the battle-brave children of nobles, twelve in all, rode around the mound. They wished to bewail their care and bemoan their king, recite elegies and talk about the man; they praised his lordship and his great deeds, appraised his manhood--as it is fitting that one praise his lord with words, love him in his heart when he must be led forth from his body. Thus did the Geatish people, the hearth-companions, mourn the fall of their lord.(3169-79)4

By building the barrow, these men have created a lasting memorial to Beowulf, which also becomes their focal point for shared reminiscence of the dead man and his great deeds. Not only do they feel sorrow, but they wish to speak about these feelings and to praise their beloved lord. Furthermore, the narrator himself validates this behavior as the proper way for a leader to be mourned.

From a contrary perspective, a further acknowledgement of the gravity of the grieving process for Anglo-Saxon warriors is the disruption of an enemy's funeral as an extreme and effective sign of disrespect. Perhaps the most famous example in Old English literature is the Vikings' theft of King Edmund's head, explicitly so that it would be not buried.5 This strategy accomplished the intended effect, for Edmund's followers "became very sad at heart over his murder, and indeed that they did not have the head for that body."6 Similar monstrous behavior is described by Beowulf upon his return to Geatland, when he explains to Hygelac that Grendel's mother took Æschere's corpse in order to deprive Hrothgar of the chance to mourn for his dearest companion:

After morning came, the Danish people could not cremate the death-weary one with burning, nor lay the dear man on the fire; she took that body away in an enemy's embrace under the waterfall. To Hrothgar that was the most bitter of the sorrows that had long befallen the people's prince.(2124-30)7

Nor are the Geats themselves above depriving an enemy of a proper burial. Hence, the dragon is unceremoniously shoved off the cliff to make way, both in the narrative and logistically, for the building of Beowulf's barrow.8

In the world of the Iliad, funeral interruption is the ultimate insult to one's enemy. As he faces off with Achilles for the last time, awareness of this possibility leads Hector to swear, "I will give your body back to your loyal comrades. Swear you'll do the same" (22.306-7). Yet Achilles refuses, citing the seemingly insurmountable difference between Greek and Trojan: "There are no binding oaths between men and lions--wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds--they are all bent on hating each other to the death" (22.310-12). Instead, Achilles ignores death's influence as the great leveler, and he desecrates Hector's corpse, both at the end of Book 22, and, ironically, during the funeral games for Patroclus conducted with such care in Book 23, "fl[inging] him facedown in the dust beside Patroclus' bier" (23.29). To reclaim Hector's body, his father Priam risks his own life to sneak into Achilles' camp, where he clasps the knees of his son's killer, and kisses his hands, saying, "Remember your own father, great godlike Achilles--as old as I am, past the threshold of deadly old age!" (24.570-71). Reminding Achilles of the elderly man back home hoping in vain for his son's return becomes an effective strategy, for the narrator tells us that

Those words stirred within Achilles a deep desire to grieve for his own father ... And overpowered by memory both men gave way to grief. Priam wept freely for man-killing Hector, throbbing, crouching before Achilles' feet, as Achilles wept himself, now for his father, now for Patroclus once again, and their sobbing rose and fell throughout the house.(24.592-99)

It is the shared experience of grief through memory of the past that brings Achilles and Priam together, and leads Achilles not only to return the body of his enemy, but to promise that the Greeks will "hold our attack as long as you require" (24.788), so that the epic may conclude, "And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses" (24.944).

Yet while death is a universal human experience, not all the dead share the hero's fate. Weil describes a second category of "still more miserable beings who, without dying, have become things for life" (48). These other victims of force do not immediately become dead bodies, but instead are enslaved, exiled, and dispossessed, subject to phenomena today acknowledged as abuses of human rights. Weil asserts the thing-status of these beings when she writes:

These are not men living harder lives than others, or socially inferior to others; they are an alternative human species, a hybrid of man and corpse ... This thing aspires at all times to be a man or a woman, and never attains this goal. This is a death that extends throughout a life, a life that death has frozen long before putting an end to it.(49)

Weil's second conversion of human to thing, this "death that extends throughout a life," must also be mourned. In fact, mourning is itself a human right, as evidenced by the fact that only those categorized as humans are subject to it; moreover, what we would now consider to be human rights abuses often go hand in hand with the denial of this right for those 'things' buried in mass graves, unidentified human remains, and the disappeared. Although the physical death of an entity viewed as thing will not be grieved nor remembered by a community, nonetheless, in heroic literature, the dispossessed often assert their human right to be mourned. Of course, heroic literature preserves the memory of the great deeds of heroes, those more fortunate victims of force. But within these texts, space is also maintained for memory of the dispossessed, who have no choice but to preemptively mourn for their own future.

Although all the Geatish people are subject to extinction following the death of their leader, not all will die in battle, the outcome we may predict for the hearth-companions who ride around Beowulf's barrow. In contrast, the voice of the disempowered Geats is represented by a female civilian:

Likewise, the old woman, sorrowful, with her hair bound up, sang a mournful song for Beowulf, said repeatedly that she sorely feared for herself evil days, a great number of slaughters, terror for a warrior, humiliation and captivity.(3150-55a)9

Introduced with swylce, this portrait occurs within the context of others (aristocratic, warrior men) grieving at the funeral pyre. Tauno Mustanoja has read this unnamed woman's speech as a spontaneous outburst of personal emotion, yet it is remarkable that the content of her speech is not grief per se but a prophecy of doom (15). What this woman adds to her male companions' mourning process is not so much personal emotion as a critique of the failure of heroic society, specifically, the evil, slaughter, terror, humiliation, and captivity awaiting herself and her people in the near future. As if symbolically, this folio of the manuscript has suffered great physical damage, and requires editorial reconstruction to be read.10 Helen Bennett has charged these editors as "patriarchal scholars" who "insert their own inverted reflection to fulfill the supposed desire of the text while confirming their own ideologies," thus recreating the woman in their own image (35). Thus, it may not be after Biowulfe, "on account of Beowulf," that she sings her giomorgyd, "sorrowful song," but rather, this woman speaks for herself.

Nor is this Geatisc meowle left to suffer alone, for Beowulf's death will cause sorrow for every Geat in a world that binds his people tightly to their leader's fate. In the announcement of Beowulf's death to his people, the messenger states:

Not at all will a nobleman wear treasures in remembrance, nor a beautiful woman have a necklace on her neck, but sad of mind, deprived of gold, she must not once but often tread a foreign country, now that the lord has laid aside laughter, joy, and mirth.(3015b-21a)11

Here, the eorl, a nobleman and warrior, will be deprived of an opportunity to remember the past, though he may yet die in battle himself. On the other hand, a future of dispossession and exile is forecast for his female counterpart, to whom the warrior role is unavailable. Though the effects of their leader's death for both eorl, "nobleman," and mag∂, "woman," are mentioned here, editor Friedrich Klaeber's note to line 3018ff. points us specifically to a civilian figure in Book 24 of the Iliad, the "lamentation of Andromache" (225).

Klaeber is not incorrect to acknowledge the similar effects of force that appear in a text from a warrior culture in another time and place. Indeed, the meowle's reaction to Beowulf's death does resonate with Andromache's grim view of the future once her husband Hector has died in Book 22 of the Iliad. According to Fagles' translation, Andromache is left a widow, worried for her infant son, that "pain and labor will plague him all his days to come" (22.574). This prediction recalls the couple's conversation in Book 6, when Hector states that he would rather die than hear his wife dragged away into slavery (6.539-55), and looks forward to Book 24, when Andromache acknowledges that she will be "carried off in the hollow ships" (24.861), and the orphaned Astyanax will be enslaved, or flung from the ramparts by an Achaean marauder, as vengeance for his father's deeds (24.862-69). With the protectors of their people dead, both Andromache and the meowle can indeed expect "hard days ahead, / the times of slaughter, the host's terror, / harm and captivity" (Liuzza 3153b-55a). Unlike the well-executed funeral of Beowulf, however, the body of Andromache's husband is seized by his murderer, Achilles, to deprive the Trojans of the satisfaction of mourning over Hector.

In "The Poetics of Loss in Greek Epic," Sheila Murnaghan has analyzed the problematic yet constitutive relationship of lamentation and epic in the works of Homer. As Murnaghan explains, "As a grieving response to the loss of an individual, lamentation is an urgent expression of that person's value, and so is a form of praise. Lament is thus prototypical of epic as a genre that confers praise--kleos in Homeric epic--on the actions of heroes, and more particularly on the actions of dead heroes, who have earned their right to be praised through the manner of their deaths" (204). At the same time, however, lamentation threatens to undermine this goal because "it stresses the suffering caused by heroic death rather than the glory won by it" (204). Yet for Simone Weil, both dead heroes and those who suffer as a result of the hero's death become victims of force, and therefore things; acknowledgement of this suffering is a result of respect for the dignity of human life lost, whether that of the heroic dead or the disempowered. In fact, Thomas Greene sees a unifying potential for mourning in epic. When he reads texts like the Iliad and Beowulf, he observes that "the resolution of tears that ends both Homeric poems ends most of the European poems that we commonly describe as epics. Most of them conclude quite literally in tears, and those few that fail to do so tend to center on a pivotal scene of mourning" (192). Thus, Greene argues that epic has the capacity "to create a community of shared mourners" by inviting the reader to grieve along with the mourners in the poem (189). Obviously, those who join this community of shared mourners as the audience of heroic literature bear the memory of the dead hero into the future. Yet more importantly, this audience also serves as the only living humans outside the world of the poem to grieve for the undead, from Andromache to the Geatisc meowle.

Mourning Present

Today, readers of the epic may be joined by readers of war. Because the geography of the North American continent insulates it from direct attack, while modern technology allows troops to travel great distances to do battle, only the warrior class in contemporary America is directly affected by armed conflict, while the rest of us become its audience. Whereas the deaths of Beowulf and Hector resulted in the extinction for their people, in twenty-first century North America and across most of Western Europe, the death of a leader is unlikely to result in slavery, exile, or dispossession for the average citizen. Thus, the vast majority of members of Western society realistically may expect they will be mourned and remembered, as it is unlikely that they will die as victims of force.

Perhaps it is this degree of security in their own personhood that allows some citizens of the West to concern themselves with the thing-status of those beyond our borders through participation in the Iraq Body Count Project, "an ongoing human security project which maintains and updates the world's only independent and comprehensive public database of media-reported civilian deaths in Iraq" (Dardagan et al.). The rationale for the project states:

Most actors in conflict, whether state or non-state, have historically displayed little serious interest in documenting and investigating civilian deaths and their causes. ... Be they men, women or children, civilian casualties, [sic] are the most unacceptable consequence of all wars. ... We believe it is a moral and humanitarian duty for each such death to be recorded, publicised, given the weight it deserves, compensated appropriately and, where possible, investigated to establish whether there are grounds for criminal proceedings.(Dardagan et al.)

It is this historical lack of interest in commemorating non-warrior victims of force that leaves only the victim to preemptively mourn for herself or himself in heroic literature. While this continues to be a characteristic of the contemporary ruling class (including governments, the military, and often global bodies like the United Nations) it is remarkable that civilians have taken responsibility for the acknowledgement of each and every civilian death in a putatively enemy nation. In fact, the Iraq Body Count Project maintains that this "duty of 'recorder' falls particularly heavily on the ordinary citizens of those states whose military forces took the actions which precipitated civilian deaths" (Dardagan et al.). And so, while we continue to maintain a distinction between warrior and civilian in our society, the "ordinary citizens" of a force-wielding people are today implicated in a process that involves even otherwise immune North American civilians. The right to be remembered that we claim for ourselves may be extended even to the dead of enemy nations, warding off thing-status and preserving their personhood. "It is to these all too easily disregarded victims of violence that Iraq Body Count is dedicated," the founders state, "and we are resolute that they, too, shall have their memorials" (Dardagan et al.). At the time of this writing, this includes between 62,281 and 68,289 human lives lost.

Mourning for the warrior class in the contemporary West has undergone a parallel evolution. Not only the elite heroes of the aristocracy but every warrior killed by force may now receive a military funeral, an appropriate shift considering the socioeconomic class from which many US troops are drawn. In fact, our culture has begun to insist on the inalienable right of every dead soldier to such a memorial. By violating her son's right to proper commemoration, Cindy Sheehan has become the most infamous mourner for the war in Iraq, a woman and mother whose critics find her behavior entirely inappropriate in that Sheehan initially refused to place a tombstone at her son Casey's gravesite. Therefore, according to the Vacaville Reporter, "The absence of a headstone on Casey's grave became fodder for Sheehan's critics last year, who accused her of being negligent and disrespectful."12 In response, Sheehan wrote the online essay "A Markerless Grave in Vacaville" to explain her reluctance to accept Casey's status as thing:

For the first year after Casey was killed, I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to place a TOMBstone on my son's grave. I didn't want one more marble proof that my son was dead. I couldn't even call where he was buried a "cemetery," I had to call it "Casey's Park." I placed fresh flowers in the cup every week and journaled there almost on a daily basis, and often laid on it and fell asleep and dreamed of my needlessly killed son.13

Sheehan further undermines Casey's status as a warrior by insisting, "My Casey wasn't always a soldier. He was a son and brother whose murder has left an aching hole in our lives worse than an amputation." Sheehan's remembrance of Casey in his civilian roles as son and brother detracts from his primary identification as a warrior who has earned the right to a marble tombstone. Moreover, while Sheehan may well be melancholic, she refuses to leave Casey in the past; instead, she insists that his spirit lives on: "Casey's shell is buried in Vacaville, California, not his spirit. He lives with me and he is constantly with me as I travel the world so other families, Iraqi or American, do not have to bury their children. Casey lives in the hearts of everyone who wants peace and works for peace. He will never truly die." Through these statements, Sheehan has refused to honor her son's right to a warrior's burial. By insisting that Casey lives on, Sheehan denies his status as a thing; thus, there is no need for her to focus on the past, on the time when he was a living human performing supposedly glorious battle deeds. And because Casey is with her in spirit, there is no need for Sheehan to mark the place where his body, a mere "shell," rests in Vacaville.

In Sheehan's most direct response to her critics, she contests the very significance of her son's burial:

Have any of these people who claim that I am pissing on my son's grave even visited him? Have they visited the grave of any soldier needlessly or senselessly killed in George's war of choice for oil and profit? Have they sobbed uncontrollably for my first born who shouldn't even need a gravestone? No, all they want to do is attack a mother who wants to prevent other people from having to bury their own child. They want to perpetuate a war that has already killed many thousands of our fellow human beings for absolutely nothing.("A Markerless Grave")

Sheehan's critics view her refusal to erect a tombstone as "pissing on [her] son's grave." Their logic requires the past deeds of the dead soldier to be praised and remembered through the creation of a physical memorial, like Beowulf's barrow. Yet Sheehan problematizes her son's status as hero by insisting on his civilian identity as her child, rather than viewing him solely as a warrior. She also questions the commander-in-chief who asserted force in a "war of choice," rather than through a war of necessity. This is why her son has been "needlessly or senselessly killed" for "absolutely nothing." As a corollary, erecting a gravestone for Casey would signify her praise of his role as warrior in a war Sheehan cannot support. Sheehan furthermore asserts the emotion of grief as preeminent in assigning significance to the mourning ritual. Sheehan grounds her right to decide how Casey should be mourned on the grief she experiences daily, in contrast to her detractors, whose insistence on memorializing Casey is hypocritical if they do not themselves attend the graves of the slain. In contrast, Sheehan expresses solidarity with those who have already shared this experience, and wishes to prevent others from doing so. Sheehan's conclusion states her position most succinctly: "No more needless gravestones. No more wasted lives." Thus, whereas Sheehan's critics view a gravestone as symbolic of the soldier's right to a past praised and remembered, for Sheehan, every soldier's gravestone represents the waste of a human life.

Nonetheless, more than two years after her son's death, Sheehan did erect a physical memorial at Casey's gravesite. In an email to the Reporter, she states, "It is important for the rest of Casey's family to have one. I guess the pain of seeing it etched in marble that he is dead is another pain I will have to deal with." Although Casey now has a tombstone, the inscription on the "elegant marble slab" continues to complicate his remembrance: "Our Casey. Ever faithful, kind and gentle, good son, beloved brother, brave soldier, dear friend, you loved your family and lived your life serving others to the end." The iconography includes a cross, thickets of trees, "a military insignia, the theater, Eagle Scouts, Van Halen, the World Wrestling Federation and Superman."14 Thus, while Casey has received his hero's memorial, the label "brave soldier" and the military insignia are overwhelmed by emblems of Casey's civilian characteristics, roles, and interests. The past that Sheehan has begun to come to terms with seems to be that of "our Casey," her son, rather than her critics' Casey, the soldier.

While Sheehan's putative disrespect for her son's grave was reviled by those on the right, the disruption of military funerals by the Reverend Fred Phelps has enraged both ends of the political spectrum. Kansas-based Reverend Fred Phelps and his followers, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church, preserve the ancient tradition of funeral interruption enacted in literature by Achilles, Grendel's mother, and the Vikings. This strategy seems in part to be retaliation against the US military for bombing Phelps' compound, as explained on his website,, under the headline:

August 20, 1995--The Night America Bombed Westboro Baptist Church With An IED (Improvised Explosive Device) In A Cowardly Move To Stop WBC's Anti-Gay Gospel Preaching--Thereby Bringing Down The Unmitigated And Irreversible Wrath of God Upon This Evil Nation, Manifesting Itself In The Daily Bloody IED-Deaths of American Soldiers In Iraq And Other Places.

More generally, Phelps believes that American tolerance for "sodomites" is being punished by God through national tragedies, including casualties in Iraq. Clearly, this interruption of the grieving process is intended to insult those whom Phelps views as his enemies, as evidenced by his slogan, "They turned America over to fags; they're coming home in body bags." Yet Phelps offers the following explanation of why he targets funerals in particular: "To warn the people who are still living that unless they repent, they will likewise perish. When people go to funerals, they have thoughts of mortality, heaven, hell, eternity, etc., on their minds. It's the perfect time to warn them of things to come." Because most of Phelps' targets are military funerals, he has incorrectly interpreted the orientation of his targets' psyche as future-focused, rather than involved in cathexis of the past. Moreover, Phelps interprets the deaths of American soldiers not as the outcome of force, but as the will of God, from which Phelps and his followers, as members of the elect, are exempt.

As a member of the elect preaching to the elect, Phelps does not need to state his position rationally in order to reach a broad, mainstream audience. The response to Phelps' protests has, however, been quite coherent. A community of veterans has gathered to create a space for the family of the fallen warrior to grieve by drowning out Phelps' protests. According to their mission statement, the Patriot Guard Riders "attend the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family" in order to both show their respect and to "shield the mourning family and friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors." While most of the members seem to be motorcyclists and/or veterans, the group welcomes all comers: "The only prerequisite is respect." Yet by claiming for themselves the roles of patriot and guardian, even those non-veterans in their midst share a metaphorical, if not material, identity as warriors. Thus, these riders may be juxtaposed to the twelve men riding around Beowulf's barrow, both groups of warriors who remember a fallen hero, and who hope to be remembered as heroes themselves.

In a more official capacity, as a result of Phelps' funeral protests, over half the fifty states have passed or proposed legislation restricting such demonstrations, including Colorado's "Right to Rest in Peace Act" and Missouri's Spc. Edward Lee Myers' Law.15 Several of these states, including Delaware, Florida, and Mississippi, have restricted protests at military funerals only, or have given particular mention to military as opposed to civilian events. For example, Kentucky has protected funerals in general because "all mourners should be left in peace," but the very first rationale of the bill cites "certain despicable individuals [who] have been disrupting the funerals of soldiers who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces." At the federal level, to restrict demonstrations at Arlington National Cemetery, President George W. Bush signed the Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, which concludes, "It is the sense of Congress that each State should enact legislation to restrict demonstrations near any military funeral." A similar law (S.4042) prohibits disruption of military funerals on national cemetery property, out of "respect for the funerals of fallen heroes." More wide-ranging is the Dignity for Military Funerals Act of 2006, introduced and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which states that, "No State or unit of local government shall issue a permit allowing, or otherwise authorize, picketing during the funeral of a member or former member of the armed forces." We must note that the wording of such legislation applies the same logic that dictated the response to Cindy Sheehan's experience of her own son's death: the right of the dead warrior to a proper burial takes precedence over the right of the mourner to grieve in peace.

It is the hero's right to be mourned that results in the great expenditure of time, wealth, energy, and resources in a funeral like Beowulf's, in the outcry against Casey Sheehan's lack of a headstone, and in the disapproval for Fred Phelps voiced at both ends of the political spectrum. Through groups like the Patriot Guard Riders and phenomena such as the military funeral itself, warrior communities continue in their traditional function as preservers of the fallen hero's memory. As the material stakes of the individual hero's death have decreased in modern America, while more individual subjects in our society can realistically hope that they will likewise be remembered, the duty to remember has expanded to include both women and civilians. While the hero's right to be mourned is now receiving unprecedented protection under US law, our society is also beginning to take responsibility for mourning those civilian victims of force whose human rights have been violated. As it falls to the audience of Beowulf and the Iliad to mourn with Andromache and the Geatisc meowle, so the civilians behind the Iraq Body Count Project are counting not just things or bodies, but individual human lives. Such responses to death in twenty-first century Western culture are a hallmark of progress in the arena of human rights and welfare, as we begin to resist the thing-status of both warrior and civilian. Yet we must not view these differences from the epic past in a self-congratulatory mode. The deaths of countless Iraqi civilians and the many needless tombstones of American soldiers both serve to remind us of the wages of force as it is wielded in the contemporary world.


1. The Iliad is cited, by book and line number, from the translation by Robert Fagles, and Beowulf is cited by line number from the edition by Fr. Klaeber. All translations from Old English are my own, unless otherwise indicated.


Hatadȝ headomare
beorhtne after bale
se scel to gemyndum
heah hlifian
þat his salidend
Biowulfes biorh. ...
hlaw gewyrcean
at brimes nosan;
minum leodum
on Hronesnasse,
syddan hatan

3. According to Daniell and Thompson, "Cremation is a much more labour-intensive option than burial. A pyre was constructed over the fully dressed and supine body. After the cremation the burnt bones and ashes were deposited in a cremation urn, or more rarely a cloth bag or bronze bowl, and buried" (70). Owen-Crocker also discusses this funeral, among the poem's others, in The Four Funerals in Beowulf.


Þa ymbe hlaw riodan
aþelinga bearn,
woldon care cwidan,
wordgyd wrecan,
eahtodan eorlscipe
dugudum demdon,
þat mon his winedryhten
ferhdum freoge,
of lichaman
Swa begnornodon
hlafordes hryre,
ealra twelfe,
ond kyning manan,
ond ymb wer sprecan;
ond his ellenweorc
swa hit gedefe bid,
wordum herge,
þonne he ford scile
laded weordan.
Geata leode

5. Skeat, 2:132: So, then the Vikings went back to their ship, and hid the head of the holy Edmund in the thick brambles so that it would not be buried. (Hwat da se flot-here ferde eft to scipe · and behyddon þat heafod þas halgan eadmundes · on þam þiccum bremelum · þat hit bebyrged ne wurde.)

6. Skeat, 2:136-37: wurdon swide sarige for his slege on mode · and huru · at hi nafdon · at heafod to · am bodige.


Noder hy hine ne moston,
bronde forbarnan,
leofne mannan;
feondes fad(mum
Þat was Hrodgare
þara þe leodfruman
syddan mergen cwom,
Denia leode
ne on bel hladan,
hio þat lic atbar
un)der firgenstream.
hreowa tornost
lange begeate.

8. 3131b-33: dracan ec scufun, / wyrm ofer weallclif, leton weg niman, / flod fadmian fratwa hyrde.


swylce giōmorgyd
(after Biowulfe
(song) sorgcearig,
þat hio hyre (hearmda)gas
walfylla worn,
hy[n]do (ond) h(aftny)d.
(s)io g(eō)meowle
swide geneahhe,
hearde (ondre)de,
(wigen)des egesan,

10. Mustanoja offers a masterful explanation of the unnamed woman's editorial lineage (25).


maddum to gemyndum,
habban on healse
ac sceal geomormod,
oft nalles ane
nu se herewisa
gamen ond gleodream.
nalles eorl wegan
ne magd scyne
golde bereafod
elland tredan,
hleahtor alegde,

12. See Kay, "Casey Sheehan's grave receives its headstone." All quotations from the Vacaville Reporter are from this source.

13. See Sheehan, "A Markerless Grave." Quotations from Sheehan, unless otherwise noted, refer to this source.

14. Sheehan's email to the Reporter and the description of the headstone are included in Kay, "Casey Sheehan's grave receives its headstone."

15. See Buchanan, "Funeral Protests."

Works Cited

Bennett, Helen. "The Female Mourner at Beowulf's Funeral: Filling in the Blanks/Hearing the Spaces." Exemplaria 4.1 (1992): 35-50.

Buchanan, Brian J., ed. "Funeral Protests: Cases and Resources." First Amendment Center. Vanderbilt University.

Daniell, Christopher and Victoria Thompson. "Pagans and Christians: 400-1150." In Death in England: An Illustrated History. Ed. Peter C. Jupp and Clare Gittings. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999.

Dardagan, Hamit et al. "Rationale." The Iraq Body Count Project.

Fagles, Robert, trans. The Iliad. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Florida House of Representatives. "House Bill 7127." DocumentType=Bill& BillNumber=7127& Session=2006.

Freud, Sigmund. "Mourning and Melancholia." Trans. James Strachey. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 14. London: Hogarth, 1957. 243-58.

General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. "An act relating to crimes and punishments and declaring an emergency."

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General Assembly of the State of Delaware. "House Bill No. 371."$file/legis.html?open.

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Holoka, James P., ed. and trans. Simone Weil's The Iliad or the Poem of Force: A Critical Edition. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.

Kay, Julie. "Casey Sheehan's grave receives its headstone." Vacaville Reporter 27 May 2006:

Klaeber, Fr., ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1950.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Library of Congress. "Bill Number S.4042 for the 109th Congress."

Library of Congress. "Dignity for Military Funerals Act of 2006."

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Liuzza, R. M., trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2000.

Mississippi Legislature. "House Bill 1693."

Missouri State Senate. "State Bill 578."

Murnaghan, Sheila. "The Poetics of Loss in Greek Epic." In Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World. Ed. Margaret Beissinger et al. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999. 203-20.

Mustanoja, Tauno F. "The Unnamed Woman's Song of Mourning over Beowulf and the Tradition of Ritual Lamentation." Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 68 (1967): 1-27.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. The Four Funerals in Beowulf. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000.

Patriot Guard Riders. "Patriot Guard Riders Mission Statement."

Rosenblatt, Paul D. et al., eds. Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area File, 1976.

Sheehan, Cindy. "A Markerless Grave in Vacaville." 11 April 2006.

Skeat, Walter W., ed. Ælfric's Lives of Saints. 2 vols. London: Oxford UP, 1966.

Slovic, Paul. "'If I look at the mass I will never act': Psychic Numbing and Genocide." Judgment and Decision Making 2.2 (April 2007): 79-95.

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Westboro Baptist Church. "God Hates Fags."

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100196