Thoreau’s Religious Response to Death

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In his Discourses, Epictetus writes, “When death appears to be an evil, we must have ready at hand the argument that it is our duty to avoid evils, and that death is an inevitable thing. For what can I do? Where shall I go to escape it?”1 This quote provides a suitable starting point by emphasizing the unpreventable and the avoidable. That which causes humans avoidable harm is “evil,” and we should elude it the best we can. The unpreventable aspects of life can never be evil; death is one of those inevitable features, so we need to accept it with equanimity. With a similar Stoic disposition, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) accepts death’s unavoidability while seeking to imagine the best way to live a quality life in response.2 He assumes neither an overly optimistic nor a pessimistic view of human finitude; instead, Thoreau reassesses death as a sad occasion while realizing that it enables new life to develop. Loss of life is part of a natural cycle including birth, maturation, and old age; yet Thoreau sees death as a possible moment for inspiration that can stimulate us to a new, better self based on responsibility and respect for the deceased. This new, better self manifests the deceased’s life by weaving the loved one’s traces into the fabric of its burgeoning present and future. In this way, Thoreau provides an orientation supporting those left behind by focusing on deliberately reconstructing a quality life with the dead in mind.




Ruehl R.M. (2015) Thoreau’s Religious Response to Death. In: Cattoi T., Moreman C.M. (eds) Death, Dying, and Mysticism. Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Mysticism. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

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