It finally happened.
The first hint came directly from the United Kingdom, where “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” shot to the top of the radio charts.
Then there were the leads and headlines in newspapers around the world, which did not make any concerted effort at deference or respect for the newly dear departed.
But what finally sealed the deal for me was watching Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson, who normally avoids giving his political views in public, devote a chunk of his monologue to say that he did not much care for Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who shuffled off this mortal coil last Monday, at the age of 87.
My epiphany from the aforementioned reactions to Lady Thatcher’s death—and plenty more besides—was that the unspoken prohibition on speaking ill of the dead has, at long last, been lifted. In today’s world, if you want to vent what you truly think about a person who has just passed—no matter how unflattering it might be—the sky is the limit.
Not that we hadn’t been moving in this direction already. When Jerry Falwell snuffed it in 2007, his longtime critic Christopher Hitchens did a round of cable TV interviews in which he condemned Falwell as a “toad” and an “ugly little charlatan,” theorizing that “If he had been given an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox.” Whatever blowback Hitchens received from this vitriol, so soon after Falwell’s demise, it sure didn’t lower his visibility on TV or any other news medium.
Nonetheless, the concept of spitting on someone’s grave while the body is still warm has long been frowned upon in polite society. When a person dies—be they a world-famous celebrity or a member of one’s immediate family—the default reaction is to speak as highly of the deceased as one can muster, usually through a deft mixture of suppressio veri—withholding certain truths—and suggestio falsi—telling outright lies.
I recently wrote a short and utterly glowing appraisal of the late film critic Roger Ebert, a man of many flaws that I easily could have noted without taking away anything from the qualities that made him great. Why did I choose to omit them anyway?
We are hesitant to speak ill of the dead. It strikes us as somehow impolite, disrespectful—bad form. Even if the corpse in question was a ruddy bastard in his time amongst the living, we give it the old college try to spin his faults in the most positive possible light. (As but one example: Get a load of what was said of Richard Nixon upon his death in 1994.)
Nowadays, this tendency appears to be steadily withering away, with underlining a dead person’s blemishes becoming far less of a taboo than it once was. I say this is good.
Against any notions of impropriety, the case for speaking both good and ill of the dead is, interestingly enough, founded on the notion of respect.
“When I was growing up, ‘respect’ meant that you took people seriously,” said Salman Rushdie, speaking on an entirely different subject. “It didn’t mean that you never disagreed with them.”
In like spirit, we should more widely recognize that we do our dear departed no favors by acting as if they were saints when we well know that they weren’t. That the harsher, more honest approach to eulogizing them may well be the more respectful as well. Would it not be slightly embarrassing, witnessing your own funeral, to be made into a far finer person than you truly were?
To be human is to inhabit three dimensions. To possess both vices and virtues. To be flawed.
A funeral or memorial service—be it public or private—is a means of, and an occasion for, assessing and reflecting upon the totality of a particular human being. What a waste, in this most sacred moment, to include only half the story.