Speaking Ill of the Dead


GravestoneFor what are probably obvious reasons, I have been thinking about the strong social taboo against speaking ill of the dead.

And I’m trying to figure out if I think it’s an irrational superstition, or a reasonable gesture of respect to people who are in mourning… or some combination of the two.

In the case of private individuals, it makes perfect sense. When people are mourning their Uncle Larry, they don’t want to hear about what an insufferable jerk he was. It would be trivializing their feelings of loss and grief.

But with public figures… it seems like the rules should be different. And yet, they’re clearly not. If we don’t personally know the person, and don’t even know anyone who knew the person… we still feel the taboo against speaking ill of them. Even if we found them repulsive at best and morally reprehensible at worst; even if we think it’s very likely that they were guilty of one of the worst crimes imaginable; even if, cutting them the greatest possible slack and taking them entirely at their own word about their actions, we still find those actions to be grossly inappropriate and unethical… even then, when a person has recently died, we tend to either say something nice, or not say anything at all. (That’s right… I’m talking about Richard Nixon.)

The only exception I can remember seeing is Spiro Agnew, who the press was merciless about when he died. I’m sure there have been others — I’m sure that when Stalin died, nobody outside the Soviet Union was writing gushing eulogies — but they are wildly few and far between. (And I strongly suspect that Agnew got slammed, not because he’d been so much more evil than any other dead person, but because he’d been such an insulting schmuck toward the press.)

And I’m trying to figure out if this taboo is reasonable.

Richard dawkinsI do get that people feel personally attached to public figures, even when they never met them. A little while back, I saw a blog headline that made me think, just for a few seconds, that Richard Dawkins had died. That he’d been murdered, actually. I was filled with shock and grief; despite the fact that I’d never met the man, I felt a deep sense of loss of someone very important to me who’d made a big impact in my life. And complicating my emotions was that fact that one of the people around at the time (we were travelling, and had some people around us we didn’t know very well) was a hard-core Christian who’d been making no bones about shoving her beliefs down everybody’s throat. The thought of having to go through my grief around this person who I didn’t trust to respect it made a terrible situation (or what would have been a terrible situation) much worse.

So there’s a part of me that really does get it.

But there’s also a part of me that thinks this is dishonest. And while I don’t actually treasure honesty as the single greatest virtue we have, while I do understand the social and even moral value of keeping your mouth shut from time to time… in this situation, there’s a part of me that’s greatly troubled by it.

Richard nixonIf it’s a public figure who I just didn’t care for or find interesting, that’s one thing. I’m happy to keep my mouth shut. But if it’s a public figure who did serious and lasting harm to people — again, think Richard Nixon — it seems that lavishing unfiltered praise on them upon their death is insulting to the people they harmed. I get that we don’t want to be trivializing or callous about people’s grief when someone they care about dies. But I also don’t want to trivialize the damage done by said person… and I don’t want to be callous about the impotent outrage their victims must be feeling when they see the person who harmed them lavishly eulogized all over the world.

So I can’t figure this one out.

Thoughts?

Comments

  1. Stephen P says

    My take on this taboo is that it originally grew in a manner where it was entirely aimed at the ordinary everyday situation. All people have good aspects, poor aspects and debatable aspects. And it is entirely possible for the poor/debatable aspects to be placed in a worse light than appropriate by others, particularly when the people in question aren’t around to explain themselves. So the taboo is essentially saying: OK, (s)he can’t defend him/herself anymore, and won’t ever be able to again, so lay off the criticism, will you?
    And in that light a taboo on criticising the dead – well, let’s say at least a reticence in criticising the dead – is a good and healthy thing.
    But when it comes to the truly vile and despotic, especially well-documented vileness and despotism, I certainly think that the taboo is out of order. Let no-one be ashamed to speak evil of some dead.

  2. Stacey C. says

    I was actually thinking about this the other day and it infuriates me. *My* big example is St. Ronald of Reagan. Yeah, people gushed about him when he was living but when he died I really couldn’t watch the news for weeks for fear of throwing something heavy at the TV.
    I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be honest about someone who’s done terrible things. A weird, sort of corollary to this is the character of Abe Simpson. If you watch enough episodes you see he was a *horrible* person, but as he aged and went senile he was forgiven for all his sins and is treated as a sympathetic character. I realize given the other characters in that show it’s not a great example but it’s always stuck with me.
    When someone gets old and senile or dies…their past doesn’t magically disappear, their victims don’t magically heal. Especially with public figures it does a disservice to history and the public truth to pretend that the person was a great, kind guy/gal just because it seems impolite to point it out at that moment.

  3. Gilgamesh says

    I remain silent when I know (or suspect) a person is concerned about a death.
    When M. Jackson died I had many things to say, but, kept them to myself knowing my wife is a celebrity worshiper.
    I do find it ironic when the media and the public engage in prolonged, dramatic morning and then any questioning about the deceased’s character is met with cries of “privacy.”

  4. says

    I’ve always thought a part of it was a sense of fair play. It’s not sporting to tear into someone that’s not around to defend themselves.
    Not that that will stop me from speaking ill of whomever I please, but it’s something to think about I guess.
    Randomly: when I first heard Michael Jackson died (thank you CNN on Twitter, for posting about nothing else over the last day, as if nothing else in the world qualifies as “breaking news”), my first thought was ‘he was such a creepy guy’. And then I immediately felt guilty about thinking that. hm.

  5. CybrgnX says

    If the dead-guy is an an ass and there is no need to get involved with the mourning-Then stay away and keep mouth shut.
    If someone wanted my opinion then I would give the truth as I saw it. Can’t deal with truth -then don’t ask.
    And the superstitions of saying bad about dead-guy is just that-Not real.

  6. says

    I agree with Sharon C that in part it’s about fair play – you don’t say things about somebody behind their back, and being dead is as far behind the back as you can get.
    It’s also about the fact that the guy is gone, beyond our reach, whether for praise or for dishing out his just desserts. Really, what’s the point? I may think a guy is a child molester (RMN?!??) but once he’s dead he can’t be punished any more. So I just drop it, mostly.

  7. says

    I recommend Hunter Thompson’s beautiful tribute to Nixon’s corpse to put this whole thing into perspective.
    Money quote: “You don’t even have to know who Richard Nixon was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit.”

  8. TechSlave says

    I have to agree, people seem to have immediately decided to focus on all the ‘good’ of Michel J. My main opinion of his entire life is sorrow – sorry for the child he was, sorrow for the entire family, sorry for the children he later twisted with his own burdens and damage.
    I think a large part of it is the feeling that “it costs us nothing” to be generous about someone’s life, times, and motivations. Especially immediately after their death. Give it a decade or so before you write about them ‘through the eye of history’ and really cut to the quick.

  9. Leo says

    In the public sphere it seems that a person’s supporters rush in in an attempt to control how this person’s history will be written, or re-written, knowing that they will face an unchallenged playing field. On the day that J. Edgar Hoover died, my 10th grade biology professor cancelled normal academic activities and held an all-day party in the classroom. It was a courageous example that has remained with me. If the supporters are going to capitalize on the person’s death (St. Ron and Bush 43’s re-election campaign come immediately to mind) then it should be open season for their detractors as well.

  10. says

    It is appropriate to sometimes say bad things about dead people. Simply consider dead people like Hitler and Stalin! Also it helps our children to know that we are honest and they can trust us. Since nobody is perfect, I think it is counterproductive to lead them to believe everybody used to be better.

  11. Axxyanus says

    I don’t agree that hen people are mourning their Uncle Larry, someone telling what an insufferable jerk he was, is not trivializing their feelings of loss and grief. Having been an insufferable to a number of people doesn’t contradict what he meant to others and doesn’t imply those feeling to be in anyway inferior.
    I think expecting those who suffered because of the deceased, to not speak up, is trivializing their suffering.
    I would say that each has the right to express his own feeling. Just try to do so in a way that is respectful of those that feel otherwise.

  12. naath says

    I think that when the harms someone did were small-scale then banging on about them is going to really infuriate the people who are mourning that person. And that it’s generally reasonable to let them slide, at least for a while.
    But on the other hand I think that ignoring serious harm done by people is not only stupid but is in itself a harm – I know there are a lot of people out there mourning Jackson, but equally there are a number of people out there who were seriously abused by him; and I think that the current celebration of his life is unlikely to be comfortable thing for them.

  13. Bruce Gorton says

    “Tell my tale to those who ask it. Tell it truly – the ill deeds along with the good – and let me be judged accordingly. The rest… is silence…”
    Dinobot, Beast Wars. /geekmoment.

  14. Donna Gore says

    My experience was with jokes. When I repeated an MJ joke, some of my friends were very offended. They said nobody should “exploit” another’s death or struggles, “have a little respect,” “respect the dead,” blah blah blah.
    So I asked some questions. Do I have to respect someone just because he’s dead? Adolf Hitler is DEAD. Jeffrey Dahmer is DEAD. No; respect is EARNED.
    So telling jokes is “exploiting” ? When you say “struggles or death” does that include any and all types of struggles/deaths? For instance, Amy Winehouse struggles with drug addiction — she’s always the butt of jokes. Is that inappropriate? MJ himself has also been the subject of jokes for years, but nobody seemed very offended until after he died. While he was alive, the jokes were okay, but now that he’s dead we’re supposed to stop telling them.
    What about those “Darwin awards” when somebody dies doing something incredibly stupid, like sticking a firecracker in their ass and lighting it? You don’t think we should make jokes about that? Is it okay to make fun of some deaths and not others? Where do you draw the line, and how do arrive at that decision?
    Of course none of them had an answer for any of my questions.
    And people are so blinded by celebrity, they excuse all sorts of vile behavior from entertainment or sports celebrities. If the man at the end of your street built a ferris wheel and a merry go round in his back yard, and started inviting kids over to spend the night, what would be your first thought? Would you let YOUR child go there?
    Nowadays, all comedians write their jokes from the headlines. That’s what they do for a living, that’s their job. And I think comedy SHOULD be offensive. Because it’s the last bastion of truly free speech.
    When I die, I hope it’s in a way that is comical and absurd, so that my friends will get a good laugh out of it. I want them to laugh instead of cry.
    As the Indigo Girls say in my “theme song” – “it’s only life, after all”

  15. says

    Personally, I could do without the bashing of and mean-spirited jokes about the recently dead for at least a couple days, while the people who *did* like them are getting over the shock. After three or four days, though, I think the taboo should be lifted if you didn’t know them personally. Besides, sometimes the truth turns out to be more important and enlightening than we expect. (Says the woman who just read Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card.)
    Just found your blog today. About five posts later I realized that I was still reading every word and decided to add it to Google Reader. Thanks!

  16. yogurtbacteria says

    I’m sort of curious about how the rules bend for the living as well, based on fame and fortune and such.
    Personally, I was really put off by all the jokes made at the expense of Christian Bale a while back when that tape of him shouting surfaced. The way I saw it, the long and the short of it was that no one outside of the people who were there that day really knew what happened or were in a position to judge, and making a public spectacle out of something that, to my mind, was a private matter between the people who were there that day was really insensitive and unnecessary. The fact that he apologized was nice, but, I felt, shouldn’t have been necessary. What happened wasn’t and shouldn’t have been a public matter, and the people who made it one, in my opinion, owed apologies to him.

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