In 1806, occasioned by the edict of Saint-Cloud promulgated in France two years prior and only now extended to the Kingdom of Italy following Napoleon’s descent over the Alps, the Italian romantic poet Ugo Foscolo composed an ode entitled “Dei sepolcri” (‘Of the Sepulchers.’)
Among other things, the edict stipulated that all dead had to be buried outside city walls, and that no distinguishing features–names, titles, etc.–were to be inscribed on the tombstones which, in a nod to the egalité of the French Revolution, were also to be of the same size.
In his ode, Foscolo stirs to defend the civic ideals (le virtù patrie) of the tomb as a patriotic monument to the dead and an inspiration to the living. The poem opens with the poet asking whether the “sleep of death” is somehow less harsh when the body is comforted by that which is familiar (‘dentro l’urne / confortate di pianto.’)
Foscolo’s materialist perspective might have induced him to respond in the negative, but he nevertheless understands that the presence of the familiar–for the dead–and the propinquity of the sepulcher–for the living–perform vital functions.
The Napoleonic edict, then, strips both the dead and their mourners of necessary humanity, and above all forces the repudiation of the home:
“Pur nuova legge impone oggi i sepolcri / fuor de’ guardi pietosi, e il nome a’ morti / contende.”
(‘Today a new law forces tombs away from merciful eyes, and it robs the dead of their names’).
In a world characterized evermore by oikophobia, the irrational fear of home or, in the late philosopher Roger Scruton’s formulation, the rejection of one’s own culture and the praising of others, my grandfather, the late Louis Nussmeier, who died almost exactly three years ago, embraced an unabashed oikophilia. Foscolo’s poem and Scruton’s recent death led me to reflect on my grandfather’s life, almost the entirety of which unfolded within a few square miles of where he was born.
If we take oikos in its various meanings to signify at turns the family, its property and the home, we might even call my grandfather an archpriest of oikophilia, the ultimate kyrios as the head of household and protector of my grandmother, his beloved wife of sixty-one-and-a-half years, whose conversion to the Catholicism of our forefathers–kyrie eleison–he witnessed upon their marriage in 1955.
Louis Nussmeier was born, and died, in Evansville, Indiana, a city of just over 100,000 located on the Ohio River, hard on the border of Kentucky.
At first glance there is nothing remarkable about the city, nor was my grandfather’s life noteworthy for his having been a well-known politician, personage or entertainer, though he was a longtime business owner and member of numerous charities and boards. With the exception of a stint in the Army overseas and stateside, he called Evansville home for his entire life.
I spent only half of my childhood in Evansville, and when I returned to Indiana for graduate school, I did so in part because it gave me the opportunity to experience first-hand grandpa’s oikophilia.
You see, despite being an avid student of history, an Army veteran, and a traveler, my grandfather’s entire world revolved around a reverent philia for his family, especially for my grandmother; for his property, in the form of our family business, an engraving and stationery company founded in 1916 with my great-grandfather’s WWI bonus money; and for place: the family home, his parish home, and his city.
His home, where he lived for over five decades with my grandmother and their five children, was located just two blocks from St. Benedict’s Cathedral, where he was a parishioner and generous benefactor for over 50 years, where he went to grade school, and where in 2017 his funeral rites were celebrated.
My own Millennial experience is one of constant centrifugal movement away from the oikos, and so my visits with grandpa had the effect of contrasting my own rootlessness with his admirable rootedness. On one of our final visits to Evansville, about five years ago, my grandfather delighted in showing us the city’s downtown revitalization, the first apartment that he had shared with my grandmother, and the city’s historic homes, all things that might not have mattered to those with no appreciation for place, or at least for that place.
Grandpa was thrifty, yet generous; he donated time and money to charities and the Church, and he took great care to see that his children lived a good, though disciplined, life. Far from repudiating his own culture and home, my grandfather embraced the simple and elegant beauty associated with the building one’s home.
As it says in Timothy 3:4-5:
“He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity / but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?”
In his 2015 “self-help” book “How Dante Can Save Your Life,” Rod Dreher detailed his own frustrated efforts to satisfy his oikophilia after decades of an itinerant oikophobia. The life of the rootless cosmopolitan, he recognized, possesses a superficial glamour, but it lacks a grounding in the home, oikos, and the community, polis, that is necessary for human flourishing.
My grandfather, on the other hand, was born, went to school, got married, worked, worshipped, and died, all in the same place. This oikophilic life does not presuppose ignorance, far from it; my history-appreciating, book-loving grandfather knew more about the world than those who flit about it inhabiting the same, undifferentiated zip codes unmoored from physical place.
Those of us who, like me, have lived a life of near-constant movement, must confront a question about our own mortality that we often avoid: Where will we be buried, and who will come to mourn us once our earthly bodies have gone? Secure in himself and of his place in the intimate cosmos of his oikos, my grandfather’s well-lived life of charity and Christian-Catholic witness also had the ultimate benefit bestowed upon it: he knew where his earthly body would be buried, and where his soul would end up.
Unlike the dead in Foscolo’s Dei sepolcri, whose forced burial outside the city contravened love of place and reverence for the dead, my grandfather’s tomb lies within the boundaries of the city, his city, in reach of the merciful eyes of those who mourn, both the final resting place for his bones and a source of inspiration to those who knew him:
“Sol chi non lascia eredità d’affetti / poca gioia ha dell’urna.” (‘Only he who leaves no inheritance of love / finds little joy in the tomb’).