The most solemn and moving chapter in Søren Kierkegaard’s remarkable book Works of Love is “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Throughout this Book, Kierkegaard models love on God’s agape, love that is not transactional and therefore requires nothing in return. After exploring such self-giving love in live human relationships at length, Kierkegaard avers that “the work of love of remembering one who is dead is a work of the most unselfish love.” This love, according to Kierkegaard is the purest love because it is nonreciprocal; the dead “make no repayment.” This is in contrast with love for newborn children who also cannot repay as the love freely given to newborns has the potential of being repaid in the future as the child matures.
However, the dead are not as dead as Kierkegaard seems to think as the dead continue to live in us in a dynamic way that can be enriching. Caring for the dead, as does caring for any live person, tends to lower resentment if there happens to be any to start with. This often begins when a person dies. We often say we should not speak ill of the dead. The instinct behind this adage is that sympathy for the dead person, warts and all, tends to kick in automatically, making the release of resentment and forgiveness free gifts from God that we can pass on to the dead. There is something about death that helps us see that person as God sees him or her, and God sees everybody, without exception, with forgiveness and freely-given love.
Resentment makes any relationship destructively static. God is completely boxed out of the relationship. Which is a way of saying the resentment creates an idol out of the one who is resented. That is, the resented person becomes central to one’s life and God does not. The lessening of resentment allows a relationship to change. This is just as true of a relationship with a dead person as it is with that of a person still alive. This dynamic allows us to understand aspects of the person we had never understood before. Giving this dynamic free reign with a dead person frees the dead person to reciprocate in a way because the dynamic of increased sympathy and understanding is so rewarding.
Caring for the dead includes commending them to God. When we do this, we become more aware of how deeply God loves both the dead and the living and that this love spurs a desire for change until one has reached the fullest potential (teleios in Greek, a word suggesting finality). If this is what God desires, then it should be what we desire for the dead and the living, including for ourselves. Of course, it also follows that the dead desire the same. And so it is that the dead, living with God, can give us much more in return for our care than we can give them.
See also “Living with the Dead.”