Saturday, December 06, 2008


Recently, DC Comics published a story called "Batman R.I.P.," which apparently results in the end of the Caped Crusader, or at the very least results in somebody besides Bruce Wayne assuming the Batman identity (though it should be noted that the final outcome of the story is left intentionally ambiguous in order to force readers to buy more comic books).

Regardless of how successful or unsuccessful this story ultimately proves in convincing readers that Bruce Wayne's cape and spandex-wearing days is at an end, it's very title did succeed in convincing me that another cultural institution should be ended. I'm speaking of the practice of using the term "RIP."

Given the ubiquity of the phrase, it is somewhat surprising that its Wikipedia entry is only two paragraphs (and even those two paragraphs are uncited). Still, I did learn some interesting facts from the page, sparse though it may be. First, I was surprised to see that the term doesn't even originate in the English language, but was adopted from Latin requiscat in pace. It makes me wonder if the phrase would even exist in our culture had the first letters of the phrase not correlated with the first letters of the English translation.

But the most enlightening point for me was the connection between the phrase and a once-dominant theology of a bygone era. I wondered why "RIP" would exist on engravings of tombstones in centuries past, given the belief that after death, the soul would pass on to the next realm. What then would be the point of wishing a peaceful rest? I wondered if it had to do with a fear of grave robbers, or the fear that somebody could potentially be buried alive. But actually, I now know it has to do with the theological concept of "soul sleep," the idea that the soul is actually asleep prior to Judgement Day. However, though this concept was popular in centuries past, it has now been disregarded even by denominations that previously adhered to it. This would certainly explain why the only tombstones inscribed with this phrase in contemporary times (to the best of my knowledge) are Halloween props.

The truly amazing thing about the phrase is that, aside from just a few religious sects, it is meaningless to people of almost all worldviews. If you believe that immediately after death the soul goes to an eternal punishment or eternal reward, it is absurd to wish the deceased a peaceful rest. If you believe that death is the end of existence, it is still absurd to wish the deceased a peaceful rest If you believe in reincarnation, it is beyond absurd to wish the deceased a peaceful rest.

So the irony here is that we have an anachronistic phrase that still enjoys a place of prominence in contemporary society. Why would this be? Obviously, it serves some sort of function, even if it is completely different than its original function. Often, when we are confronted with loss and grief, eloquence isn't practical. Words fail us. We latch onto existent words and phrases, in the hope that in some small way they can express how we are feeling. So when we say "RIP" we don't mean "rest in peace," we mean "I will miss you," "I am sad that you are gone," or "You will be missed." So actually, by virtue of its very meaninglessness, it allows us express whatever meaning we want it to. Furthermore, in a society that is increasingly pluralistic in attitudes and beliefs about the afterlife, the vagueness of the term helps it to persist. Precisely because it is equally absurd for almost everybody, it favors no particular ontology.

However, I still can't help but be annoyed by the imprecision of the phrase. I want my utterances to be literally reflective of my actual beliefs, and I'm sure that most people would actually say the same. So can we conceive of a phrase which can substitute for RIP? Can we find a phrase that will still serve as a shorthand for deeper feelings, a phrase that can be versatile enough to mean multiple things, perhaps to people of varying belief systems?

Actually, I think we can. I can't do it in three letters, but I've got a four-letter substitute: GBFN. It can actually stand for a couple of things: "Gone, But Forgotten Never," or "Good-Bye For Now."

Still, I must admit that even this phrase isn't applicable in all situations. I wouldn't apply it to the death of a comic book character.


Blogger Ka Zoua said...

very interesting.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Jon said...

I wonder if it also has some ties to the Peace of Christ. In historic liturgies there is almost always a "Pax Domini". Commonly phrased: "The peace of the Lord be with you always."

So I wonder if context was also Rest in the peace of Christ? Which would still be completely applicable today.

Just my random musings. All this from comic books? Now, I kind of wish I had money to buy some!

12:19 AM  
Blogger Nicki W. said...

Hi Azor,
I always thought it was put on gravestones so that the soul would not come back as a ghost to haunt the living or that the soul should "move on" to whatever afterlife was waiting for the person. Like a disgruntled ghost would pay attention to an abbreviation anyway.

9:38 PM  

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