Atheists don’t talk about death – or do they? Death by Elegy book review
Death is an awkward topic. It rarely features in the conversation at dinner parties or BBQ’s It’s a topic which we don’t often speak about nor think about. This is a particularly challenging topic for atheists, as some atheists admit it a ‘difficult area’. So this is why I found atheist Dick Gross’ book Death by Elegy so refreshing, fascinating and thought provoking.
Gross is one of Melbourne’s leading ‘public’ atheists being the author of the popular blog Godless Gross (previously with National Times). Gross is a colourful and slightly eccentric character and has appeared in several City Bible Forum events around the country (including in this video where you can see Dick and his book).
So how does a colourful and slightly eccentric atheist engage the topic of death? Well, Death by Elegy is the answer.
In Death by Elegy, Gross uses Thomas Gray’s 18th Century Elegy written in a Country Churchyard as a springboard to ‘robust discussion of mortality’ (p.65).
Gross’ whimsical wit and unique style make for a fascinating read. The book is broadly divided into two sections. Part A reflects on death from the eighteenth century perspective and part B looks at a more modern view. Gross cleverly uses different fonts to compare reflections on Gray’s 18th century work with his more ‘modern’ ruminations. Gross even writes his own poetry in his ‘Elegy written in an industrial crematorium and botanic ceremony’ to close the book.
Gross has a slightly idiosyncratic view of Thomas Gray proposing him as a depressed, isolated, homosexual, secularist. I wonder how much Gross sees himself in Thomas Gray – he does compare himself with Gray in Chapter 2 where he describes Tom and Dick as ‘the odd couple’ (p.11). Consonant with Gross’ colloquial style he refers to Thomas Gray throughout as ‘Tom’ – then cleverly talks about every ‘Tom, Dick and Ernie’ (so close and yet so far!) when bringing Ernest Becker’s thoughts into his ‘robust discussion’ with ‘Tom’ (p.127).
Gross outlines his thoughts on whether there is an afterlife and his Gross’ reflections on death and ‘posterity’ and ‘denial’ are honest and most penetrating. Gross thoughtfully and accurately describes the modern avoidance and ambivalence of death. He correctly observes that our society effectively insulates its members from death, most deaths nowadays in the wealthy West .. happen in a medically controlled environment (pp.4-5). Gross paints the contrast with the world of Thomas Gray where the average life expectancy was in the low 30’s.
I particularly resonated with the concept of the ‘good death vs bad death’ (p.4). Bad deaths are deaths which are simply appalling (I wonder if the Darwin Awards qualify?) they are painful and early. Whereas ‘good’ deaths are achieved after a resolution of serenity after a long life. Whilst this is a thoughtful categorisation, Jesus’ death challenges Gross’ definitions. Was Jesus’ death a good death or a bad death? Gross may claim it was a bad death and in many ways it was – an innocent man dying a painful awful death on a cross. Yet Jesus’ death is remembered on ‘Good Friday’ and his sacrifice forms the centre of the Christian doctrine of atonement. Was Jesus’ death a good death or bad death? It defies simple classification.
A theme Gross cleverly draws out of Gray’s work (and also Ernest Becker’s work) is that of the human desire for ‘immortality projects’. Immortality projects are ways we seek to ‘transcend death through the creation of something that will last forever’ (p.127). This may be through creating memorials, or something which impacts your social group in accordance with the groups expectations’. I resonated deeply with Gross’ points here (and those of Tom and Ernie). I recall several moments in my life when I wonder if I were to die, would be there anything to remember me by? I was comforted by a brick which bears my name in a park in the town I grew up in, and my name on the wall of achievement in my high school – my own small ‘immortality projects’. But Gross touches here something of the human desire and need to be remembered, to transcend death in some tangible, meaningful way.
Yet Gross also highlights the vanity of such ‘immortality projects’ through the question he asked his university-trained daughter, ‘do you know who Sir Robert Menzies was? (p.73). Her shrug of her shoulders demonstrated that even though she went to the same school as Menzies, studied in a building named after Menzies and played on parks named after Menzies, she had no idea who he was. Gross correctly points out that the ‘posterity effect is ephemeral, local and transient’ (p.74).
Whilst Gross’ work is thoughtful, colourful, enjoyable and readable, it is not without weaknesses.
Is Gray’s Elegy a “secular” work? Gross over reaches to suggest that Gray was a secularist. Gross proposes this due to the paucity of references to the afterlife (p.64). Gross dismisses the references to the afterlife in the poem as merely ‘token’ (p.65). Gross is certainly correct that there is a paucity of references to the afterlife in the Elegy. Yet for Gross to demand more references misunderstands the purpose of Gray’s writing. Gray does not intend to give a full biblical theology of death (and the afterlife). This would in many ways rob Gray’s work of its thoughtful power. Gray intends to ruminate on the observations from the village and the churchyard, which make Gray’s Elegy resonant with wisdom literature – which also contains a paucity of references to the afterlife.
Indeed there is a remarkable similarity between Gray’s Elegy and the writings of Qoholeth (the Teacher) of Ecclesiastes. Qoholeth points out the ‘vanity’ of ‘immortality projects in Chapter 2, ‘I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them etc etc’. Yet he recognises their vanity, just as Robert Menzies is forgotten, ‘Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was vanity, a chasing after wind, nothing was gained under the sun’ (2:11). Indeed some have seen Ecclesiastes as a ‘secular’ work because of the paucity of references to the afterlife – yet this again misunderstands the purpose of Ecclesiastes – and makes the same mistake Gross does.
This theme of absence of the afterlife brings to the forefront the fascinating structural and thematic parallels between the respective conclusions of Gray’s Elegy and Ecclesiastes. The frustration and enigma evident through observing the world described in Ecclesiastes is resolved by the very last verse, ‘For God will bring every deed into judgement including every hidden thing whether it is good or evil’ (Eccl 12:14). Similarly the hope contained in the last two sentences of The Elegy resolves many of the tensions raised through the observation of the narrator. This means that Gray’s references to the afterlife are far more than simply ‘token’, instead they carry so much of the meaning of the poem.
Moreover Gray’s teaching method through the poem (similar to Milton) is similar to that of wisdom literature in that it ‘goads the readers via a series of mistakes / frustrations / dead ends to discover the truth for themselves’ 
Gross would do well to consider the connections between the Elegy and wisdom literature, particularly Ecclesiastes. Given the profound philosophical reflection of wisdom literature within the Old Testament, Gross’ perspective on Gray’s poem and the Scriptural understanding of death is simplistic.
Yet Ecclesiastes not only reflects on death in a similar way to Tom and Dick, it also points to a solution to the enigma of death – that the judgement of God transforms the meaning of death.
Evidence for the afterlife overlooked. Another glaring weakness of Gross’ work concerned the evidence for an afterlife, After outlining a number of potential avenues for determining the existence of an afterlife, including near death experiences and science he concludes, ‘there is no evidence Paradise, Heaven, Hell exist’ (p.122). Yet frustratingly Gross overlooks the testimony/eyewitness evidence for an afterlife by the disciples of Jesus as they observe the resurrected Jesus. For if Jesus really was raised back to life then this would be direct, observable evidence of an afterlife. Indeed, the Christian claim to an afterlife begins with Jesus as the ‘first fruits’ (1 Cor 15:20). There is good evidence to suggest that Jesus really did ‘defeat death’ and offers a glimpse at an afterlife, but unfortunately Gross overlooks this entirely in his treatment.
Death by Elegy is a very good book. Whilst I disagree with the outlook and the assessment of the evidence, there are very helpful and penetrating discussions. I would recommend reading it and perhaps trying to talk about it at parties and BBQ’s. I commend Dick to confront this issue in such a thoughtful way.
Yet I couldn’t help feeling that Gross’ conclusions set him very far apart from those of ‘Tom’, someone he deeply admires. Gross’ own Elegy, written in an industrial crematorium and botanic ceremony is radically different to Tom’s. Gross concludes with no hope, simply a shrug of the shoulders that he was just another ant who dies and this is our common fate, ‘we are him and he is us’. Whereas Gray ended with hope, ‘there alike in trembling hope repose’. This is the hope that Gross has misunderstood in Gray’s poetry and has overlooked in the Scriptures and will always be missing from atheistic poets, no matter how eccentric or thoughtful.
 I’m thankful to Chris Swann for pointing this out and articulating it to me.