The phrase “Rest in Peace” (Latin: Requiescat in pace) has been a fixture on Christian gravestones since the 18th century. Its meaning is apparent; let the soul of the person buried here find peace in death. Three words, easily said and seemingly innocuous, yet they have profound implications. There can be no rest without work; the notion of resting in death implies that life is some sort of toil. Then there is the peace aspect of the thing. Peace, in this context, can be defined as a state of tranquility or serenity. Presumably our souls, wherever they go, achieve this state after we perish.
An alternative to this traditional epitaph emerged in the late 20th century. “Rest in Power” seems to have originated in 90s hip-hop culture with the deaths of individuals such as rapper Tupac Shakur and graffiti artist Aaron Anderson. The phrase has since been adopted by the queer community and other countercultural groups. For example, the expression was widely used to lament the death of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teen who was driven to suicide by her judgmental parents.
The recent violence against African-Americans has brought “Rest in Power” to hitherto unattainable prominence. Indeed, the upcoming memoir of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was shot dead by a neighborhood watchman, will be titled Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin. There are a number of salient similarities between Martin and Leelah Alcorn. For one thing, they both died tragically at a young age. For another, they both came from traditionally marginalized groups. The most important parallel of all, however, is that their deaths came to mean a great deal to the respective causes they became associated with. I believe the modern popularity of the Rest in Power epitaph sheds considerable light on the nature of such causes, especially the current plight of African-Americans.
Why Rest in Power instead of Rest in Peace? What does the former offer the mourners of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Alton Sterling that the latter does not? The deceased is still being allowed to rest from the toil of life. Instead of a peaceful rest, though, they have a powerful one. And attempting to ascribe power to someone who has passed implies that they will need that power wherever they’re going; an idea that has no spiritual basis in Christianity or any other western religion. The only afterlife in which a soul might need power would be some type of hell, and that is certainly not what is meant.
The common denominator in each Rest in Power death is that each one greatly impacted a particular impetus for social change. The “power” mentioned is the earthly power that the individual had to make a difference. People like Prince, who have no particular association with activism, are also told to Rest in Power because the African-American race has been so intensely oppressed that every prominent black voice makes a difference.
“Rest in Power” struck me the first time I saw it. It seemed to me grossly unfair. Who are we, I though, to deny someone their well-earned peace? Upon reflection, however, I came to better understand the issue. I have taken a religious studies course here at Cornell, and I remember exactly one thing from that course: environment shapes spirituality. Many ancient nomadic tribes, for example, had religious systems that were decidedly corporeal. They sacrificed a goat, they hoped for rain or some other earthly reward, that was the end of it. When life is a constant struggle for food and safety, there’s simply no time to contemplate salvation or karma or anything of the sort. I contend that, as evidenced by the usage of “Rest in Power,” certain groups in America have experienced such profound suffering that the notion of moving on to greener pastures after death has become intolerable or irrelevant or both. If that doesn’t underscore the need for change, nothing will.
Ara Hagopian is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Whiny Liberal will appear alternating Fridays this semester.