(About a 3 minute read)
The recent death and funeral of John McCain has once again raised a debate about the propriety of speaking ill of the dead. Naturally, the loudest voices have belonged to partisan pundits who can be expected to flip their opinions — pro and con — when the next prominent Democrat dies.
But I think a lot of common people are concerned with the issue too. How fair is it to criticize the dead? If it’s fair at all, then does our criticism have limits? And if so, what should those limits be?
I do not recall how the deaths of prominent politicians were handled when I was growing up 50 or so years ago, but I do recall that in the matter of members of my community, the rule was strict (and strictly obeyed) that one should never criticize the newly dead.
The community back then could be in general agreement that the only good quality you possessed were a fine set of teeth, and yet, no one would even whisper a criticism of you until perhaps some considerable time after your burial. I worked in a funeral home while in high school, and I cannot recall anyone criticizing the dead in all four years I worked there.
Of course, the death of prominent politicians is a whole ‘nother game. To many folks, praising a politician amounts to praising his or her politics, criticizing them amounts to criticizing their politics. And admonishing people to “speak no ill of the dead” amounts to unfairly playing the referees.
I do not think it is reasonable for one side to both insist on praising a man or woman’s politics, and that no one should speak ill of them. Nor do I think it’s likely that we in our age will ever fail to use a funeral as an occasion to advance our own politics or condemn someone else’s politics by proxy of the deceased. So I’m pretty confident that the old rule, “speak no ill of the dead” is at least partly compromised today, and will for the foreseeable future remain at least partly compromised.
But should we speak ill of the person themselves, apart from their politics?
I believe we should not, and my reasons for saying that go well beyond mere politeness. To me, death is among the most powerful reminders that we are all human. Moreover, I believe we forget that at our peril. No republic or democracy can long survive if and when the sides demonize each other. It is then that cooperation and magnanimity come to an end.
Only obstructionism remains — and no country can be run by a powerful obstructionist opposition. History shows, the natural tendency of people under such a situation has been to seek out a strongman to end the obstructionism — at the price of freedoms and liberties.
Death is a solemn occasion not merely for the loss of life, and not merely for the suffering it brings to the deceased’s loved ones. It is a solemn occasion because it is humanity’s fate to die. But in that fact we may find that we are united by it. Just as other things unite us — or should unite us — such as our love for our children and grandchildren, our love for our spouses and partners, and so forth — death unites us as one humanity.
It is all too easy for we humans to demonize each other — to become beasts willing to rip out each other’s throats — without adding to the problem by denying or refusing to honor the marks of our common humanity.
So, while I would be willing to criticize a prominent man or woman’s politics even on the day of their funeral, I will reserve any criticism of the person themselves for a more appropriate time.