In Memoriam

Harold Piety, at a talk on civil rights in the 1960s, first row, far right.

My father died on January 6, when I was at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah. It was unexpected. He’d recently been diagnosed with esophageal cancer, but had been doing very well and had been projected to live at least another six months and possibly even as long as another year or two.

My father’s death has hit me hard because I was very close to him.  I gave the following speech at his memorial service. I thought I would post it here, partly in explanation for why I have not posted in so long, and partly because it mentions Kierkegaard. Several people who attended his memorial service said they found it comforting. I figure nearly everyone has lost someone they loved deeply, so I hope you, my many kind readers, will find it comforting as well.


When I was a little girl, I would wake up sometimes in the night, frightened of what I imagined were monsters hiding under my bed or in my closet. But then I would remember my father, and just the thought of his existence would dispel my fear so that I would be able to go back to sleep. It wasn’t just that I was confident he would protect me from any threat. It was that I felt a world that contained such a person as my father could not possibly also contain monsters.

There can’t be many fathers who inspire such confidence in a child. And my father learned to do that without the benefit any influence of that sort in his own life. He taught himself.

There is something which is a person that is more than the sum of physical parts. It is that thing that is the real person. The physical parts may change, so long as that thing does not, the person remains the same. But since that thing, which is the real person, is not actually a physical thing, it is not subject to corruption or decay as the body is. That was Plato’s proof for the immortality of the soul.

Kierkegaard has a book called Works of Love, and this book has a chapter entitled “The Work of Love in Remembering One Who is Dead.” This, for Kierkegaard, is the supreme act of love because the dead, he observes, cannot love you back, so to love the dead is to love purely without any expectation of being loved in return.

It’s not often that I disagree with Kierkegaard, but I believe he is wrong when he says that the dead cannot love you back. Love, like whatever mysterious thing it is that is a person, is not a physical thing. The evidence of it is often physical, but the love itself is not, hence like the person, it is not subject to decay as the body is.

Kierkegaard speaks, in Philosophical Crumbs, of an historical point of departure for an eternal consciousness. He was talking, of course, about the incarnation, but also, I would argue, about love, which has an historical point of departure every time a new human being is born, but which, as an immaterial thing, cannot help but survive the death of the body.

That is the sense in which we resemble God –– we love. Love has a temporal point of departure every time a human being is born, and the fact of that love, becomes, with its existence, an eternal fact. That my father loved us is a fact about us. It is part of who we are, and it will continue to be part of who we are. Even though he is no longer able to give his love a physical expression, it continues to be real, and those of us who love him will continue to feel it.

Harold Russell Piety will always be real and so will the fact of his love. Those of us who love him will continue to love him and we can expect to feel loved in return.