Philosophy professor explores connection between stone and death

Aspen Brooks, For the Review

Stone is inextricably linked to memorializing the dead in many cultures, but not many people understand why.

Kathleen Higgins, a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, tackled this question in the 44th Walter Powell-Linfield College Philosophy Lecture on Thursday. The lecture was titled “Life and Death in Rock: Meditations on Tomb Stones.”

Higgins suggested that defying death, preserving memory, maintaining a connection with the deceased, and symbolizing a restoration to life all contribute to the connection between stone and honoring the deceased.

She pointed out how “Stones are capable of freezing things in place,” which in terms of tombstones, represents a defiance of death and the preservation of a connection with the deceased.

“We put up monuments to remember people and yet when we put them up, they become part of the landscape, so we ignore it.” She said that the point of putting up stone monuments is to call attention to the loss of an individual (or many), to say “Look, the human landscape has changed. Pay attention.”

She gave examples of how stone is used in various cultures to commemorate the dead, showing pictures of grand mounds, steles (similar to tombstones), stupas (“memorials that involve relics, particularly relics of saints”), pagodas, and tombstones.

Higgins went on to explain how the nondescript character of stone enables it to be used as a token, but added that upright stones can command attention.

She described tombstones as “tablets on which we are communicating, albeit at a distance,” with loved ones who have died. Tombstones are a way to maintain a connection with the dead, and provide a physical object to replace the loss of the deceased person’s physical presence.

Higgins pointed out that the strength of stones means they can represent either an obstacle between the living and the dead, or protection for loved ones who have died.

Higgins has published seven books, edited seven more, and written six textbooks. She has also written over 50 journal articles and book chapters, and serves on the editorial boards of five prestigious journals.