Grieving Critically: Barack Obama and the Counter-Eulogy

Date01 June 2022
AuthorLucy Williams
Published date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(2) 307 –320
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912921998458
Public mourning—“the attempt to employ grief for politi-
cal ends”—presents unique opportunities for political
and social transformation (Stow 2017, 5). As Simon Stow
(2007, 206) has argued, grieving provides a “great
opportunity for critical analysis,” an occasion for com-
munities to reflect on their virtues and limitations. And
as Heather Pool (2012, 185, 189) has observed, it “can
help resolve political and social tensions” and may
“spark . . . conversation[s] about responsibility and
prompt calls for specific political and institutional
change.” According to Judith Butler (2008, 12; see also
Butler 2004, 19), grief reveals “something about who we
are” and “delineates the ties we have to others, . . .
show[ing] us that these ties constitute what we are.” Grief
is also inherently and necessarily transformative: as
Butler explains, loss “changes you possibly forever,” and
“mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transfor-
mation the full result of which you cannot know in
advance” (Butler 2004, 18; see also Butler 2008, 11).
In ancient Athens, political leaders responded to these
transformative, opportunity-laden moments using the
epitaphios logos or official funeral oration—a distinct
rhetorical form that praised the polity, celebrated the
fallen, and counseled survivors. Since then, official
funeral speeches have played an integral role in political
societies. From Pericles’ and Lysias’ epitaphioi logoi to
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, state funeral orations tend
to offer the comfort of sameness, reassuring listeners
through a set of familiar and expected tropes. They also
contribute to civic education and socialization by teach-
ing and reinforcing a community’s civic values (see
Loraux 1986, 144).
Although official funeral orations have become a
familiar ritual for grieving publics, and although they play
an important role in shaping a country’s values and offi-
cial history, there are some who believe official funeral
rhetoric is not healthy. Indeed, critics have long warned
that funeral speeches have harmful and pe rnicious
effects. In Plato’s Menexenus, for example, Socrates
laments that official funeral speeches “cast a spell over
[listeners’] souls,” stroke egos, and leave audiences feel-
ing “entranced” with “feelings of [their] own nobility”
(Plato 2010, 117–18). Contemporary scholars likewise cri-
tique the “simple comforts” of funeral oratory, arguing that
official funeral speeches undermine the public’s capacity
for self-critique and discipline listeners into comfortable,
complacent, and uncritical understandings of themselves
(see Jamieson 2013; Johnston 2015; Stow 2007).
Grieving democracies thus face a dilemma. Moments
of public mourning offer unique opportunities for self-
reflection, growth, and transformation. But to commem-
orate these moments, democratic communities have
998458PRQXXX10.1177/1065912921998458Political Research QuarterlyWilliams
1Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Lucy Williams, Department of Political Science, Brigham Young
University, 774 Kimball Tower, Provo, UT 84602, USA.
Grieving Critically: Barack Obama
and the Counter-Eulogy
Lucy Williams1
How can grieving communities respond to public loss while also seizing the reflective and transformative potential
inherent in moments of collective mourning? In this article, I explore this question by analyzing and critiquing fifty-
seven of the official funeral speeches Barack Obama delivered during his presidency. I compare Obama’s national
eulogies to two ancient mourning traditions: the Homeric mode and the Athenian mode. I further argue that, like
these ancient modes, Obama’s eulogies may suppress critical thought, perpetuate us/them thinking, and prioritize
individual interests above communal ties. I therefore propose and theorize the counter-eulogy, a thoughtful, critical,
and self-reflective mode of official funeral rhetoric inspired by the counter-monument artistic movement and other
alternative mourning practices. I analyze Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney as an example of a counter-
eulogy. In doing so, I illustrate how counter-eulogies preserve the ritual features of traditional national eulogies while
also capturing the democratic potentiality inherent in moments of public grief.
mourning, public grief, funeral orations, epitaphios logos, Obama

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