Our Grateful Dead: Stories of Those Left Behind

Vinciane Despret’s unique storytelling, woven with ethnography and family history, assembles accounts of those living their daily lives with their dead. She explores how the dead play an active, tangible role through those who are living, who might assume their place in a family or in society; continue their labor or art; or thrive from a shared inheritance or an organ donation. 

Vinciane Despret studies reports of the dead interfering in people’s lives—to contest, direct, encourage, or console them. This important book will induce psychotherapists to reconsider Freud’s concept of the work of mourning and social scientists to understand in new ways the force of political and religious ancestors on society. — Alphonso Lingis

A common remedy after suffering the loss of a loved one is to progress through the “stages of grief,” with “acceptance” as the final stage in the process. But is it necessary to leave death behind, to stop dwelling on the dead, to get over the pain? Vinciane Despret thinks not. In her fascinating, elegantly translated book, this influential thinker argues that, in practice, people in all cultures continue to enjoy a lively, inventive, positive relationship with their dead.

Through her unique storytelling woven from ethnographic sources and her own family history, Despret assembles accounts of those who have found ways to live their daily lives with their dead. She rejects the idea that one must either subscribe to “complete mourning” (in a sense, to get rid of the dead) or else fall into fantasy and superstition. She explores instead how the dead still play an active, tangible role through those who are living, who might assume their place in a family or in society; continue their labor or art; or thrive from a shared inheritance or an organ donation. This is supported by dreams and voices, novels, television and popular culture, the work of clairvoyants, and the everyday stories and activities of the living. For decades now, in the West, the dead have been discreet and invisible. Today, especially as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Despret suggests that perhaps we will be willing to engage with the dead in ways that bring us happiness despite our loss.

Despret’s unique method of inquiry makes her book both entertaining and instructive. Our Grateful Dead offers a new, pragmatic approach to social and cultural research and may indeed provide compassionate therapy for those of us coping with death.

Vinciane Despret is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Liège and the Free University of Brussels. The original French edition of Our Grateful Dead ( Au bonheur des morts) won the prestigious Prix des Rencontres Philosophiques de Monaco. Her books include What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? and The Dance of the Arabian Babbler: Birth of an Ethological Theory, both from Minnesota.