Ethics of Funerals Group Discussion


This activity supports a discussion of the different views of the early Confucians and Zhuangzi on the ethics of funeral practices by priming students’ interest and engagement using a group discussion activity.


Morally appropriate funeral practice is not a widely-discussed topic in many philosophy courses. Students might think that the best way to perform a funeral is simply however the person who died would have wished it. This activity is designed to help students take a step back, and reflect on what funeral practices symbolize, signify, and express.


This is a group discussion activity, best done in small groups of 4-5 students.

Texts / Connections

Relevant texts:

Xunzi, Chapter 19:  Discourse on Ritual (in Bryan Van Norden and Philip J. Ivanhoe, Readings in Early Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014)

Zhuangzi, pp. 222, 226, 237-240  (in Bryan Van Norden and Philip J. Ivanhoe, Readings in Early Chinese Philosophy (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 2014)

Secondary texts for instructor:

Erin Cline, “The Boundaries of Manners,” Dao 15: 241-255, esp. pp. 247ff.
Amy Olberding, “From Corpses to Courtesy,” Journal of Value Inquiry 49: 145-159, especially section 2.

See also Amy Olberding's TDP Unit on Care of the Dead in early Chinese philosophy.

Courses and Topics

Introduction to Philosophy, Introduction to Ethics, Philosophy of Death

Activity Plan

Give students in small groups (4-5 members) the following prompt:

The year is 2050, and the best, most universally loved and respected President in the history of the United States has just passed away. The Senate has appointed you to the funeral and memorial planning committee.

One side of the committee wants the funeral to be festive and happy, to celebrate the late President’s life. The other wants the funeral to be mournful, to recognize the scope of our loss.

Students then must discuss which option would be better. (To avoid simplistic answers, you might want to tell them that it is not clear which type of service the former President would have wanted).

Additionally, you can assign different roles to students to facilitate discussion. Often, I assign two students as senators arguing in favor of the festival, two as senators arguing in favor of the solemn ceremony, and one as a vice-president who has to make the final decision.

Discussion Questions (optional)

Increasingly, funerals in our culture are aimed at celebrating a person’s life, and the things they enjoyed and cared about. Could there be any negative consequences of this? Do we become alienated from our own mourning process? Should funerals be sad?

Author Information

Seth Robertson (University of Oklahoma)