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How should we speak of the dead?

03/14/2012 Comments (29)

How are we to speak of the dead?

For instance, when a public figure dies, how should people respond—particularly his ideological opponents, and most especially those who regard the public figure’s life, causes and behavior as reprehensible?

A flurry of discussion around these issues was occasioned by the recent death of Andrew Breitbart and the ensuing spate of commentary in the media, blogosphere, Twitter, etc.—much of it consisting of solemn right-wing eulogizing and gleeful left-wing celebration. 

Similar displays have of course followed in the wakes of other public figures, and when a left-wing icon dies there is the same sort of eulogizing and gleeful celebration from the opposite camps. Breitbart himself responded to the death of Ted Kennedy with a torrent of vitriolic tweets—“a special pile of human excrement” is one of the more printable things he tweeted in the hours after Kennedy died—that were as far beyond the bounds decency and propriety as some of the invective unleashed by his own death.

Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote a typically thoughtful column, offering his own take on the excesses of “The New O-Bi­tch-uaries,” as the headline of a Katie Roiphe article put it, and responding to defenders of what might politely be called obituarial bluntness, including David Frum and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Douthat’s angle is political: He argues that the ideological divisions separating left and right in our age are comparatively small and disproportionate to the violence of the rhetoric accompanying them.

My take is humanistic and existential: I think that many things become smaller and recede in the face of the overwhelming fact of death.

On one level, it seems to me that to take a man’s death as the occasion for attacking his shortcomings as we see them, however serious they may be, is not entirely unlike walking into a wedding reception and starting to complain loudly about the groom’s scofflaw ways or the bride’s shabby treatment of her family.

On a deeper level, when a man goes to give account before the Judge to whom we all stand or fall, it is has widely been felt appropriate for lesser judges to make at least a gesture of holding their peace, at least for a moment.

Resisting this line of thought, a friend asked pointedly, “So when can we be honest?” This was in a discussion several years ago following the death of Jerry Falwell. My friend had offered a withering assessment of Falwell’s life and work in an online forum I frequented, and I (and others) offered some resistance to this. My friend’s rejoinder is worth contemplating:

My views on Jerry Falwell are the same as they were last week, when he was alive, and they will be the same next week, next month, and next year. Typically when a public figure dies, there is an assessment of his life. And that is what I saw going on in this discussion. If that’s a violation of proper decorum, then someone will need to explain proper decorum to me. What is the length of silence required to ensure proper respect? I’m willing to abide by it, but I don’t know the rules.

What can we say to that?

I don’t think it’s a matter of rules, and certainly not of honesty or dishonesty. Let’s agree from the outset that neither ideological agreement nor concern for propriety regarding the recently deceased is occasion for outright dishonesty about their failings. Likewise, let’s agree that uncharitable vitriol is always wrong, regardless whether someone has recently died, is alive and kicking, or has been dead for half a century.

Our opinions of the recently deceased may be the same as they were last week. But if there is a time and place for everything, last week and this week may not be the same time for the same thing.

I’m intrigued that those who share this sense of post-mortem decorum are prone to express their sensibilities in pleas like these:

“The man is dead.” “The guy isn’t even cold yet.” “The earth hasn’t even settled on the man’s grave.”

There seems to me something significant in those depersonalized, universal references to “the man” or “the guy”: a kind of plea to a human impulse toward solidarity in the time of trial and duress.

Last week, perhaps, the deceased was a public figure of note and notoriety. At some point in the future he will be a figure of history and mythology, with a place in the pantheons or demonologies of his advocates and detractors.

There is, however, a privileged moment in which he is simply “the guy” or “the man”—a fellow human being whose straitened circumstances constrain us to regard him in this moment precisely as another bearer of our common humanity, a man of like substance with ourselves, who has gone the way of all flesh as each of us must do.

How long a moment? I don’t know. I don’t know whether such a question can be answered, or whether it makes sense even to ask it. Such matters are best felt from within, not analyzed from without.

The fundamental point, I think, is that our first response to the news of death (or any calamity) befalling anyone be one of human solidarity rather than drawing lines and casting stones. This is not to say that there is no place for drawing lines or casting stones at all. Beyond that, it is a matter of human intuition, culture and understanding.

A thought experiment that may or may not be helpful. What if the news had been, not that our ideological enemy had died, but that he had been in a car crash and was now a quadriplegic? What if we heard that he had lost his children in a plane crash?

How would we respond to such news? As an occasion to comment on our differences with his theology and public stances? Or as an occasion for a moment of human (and Christian) solidarity?

A trivial example. Around the time of Falwell’s death, Roger Ebert posted a column about receiving flowers at his house, with a note signed “Your Least Favorite Movie Star, Rob Schneider.”

What occasioned this gesture of goodwill from the star of the movie that Ebert reviewed with the phrase that became the title of his book Your Movie Sucks? Ebert had been gravely ill. What if Ebert had remained in good health? Obviously, he would hardly have been receiving flowers from Schneider. In principle, I wouldn’t have been surprised had I heard (not that I’m remotely offering any commentary or speculation about Schneider’s character) that Schneider had in some way been rude to or snubbed Ebert in public.

Yet in fact Ebert got sick, and Schneider sent him flowers. At a time of duress, differences become comparatively less important, and common humanity—and, for Christians, Christian charity—comes to the fore.

Granted, a snarky review of a disposable comedy is small beer compared to the issues many people have with people like Jerry Falwell, Ted Kennedy or Andrew Breitbart. At the same time, the guy is dead. Take a moment. Take off your hat. Say a prayer.

Those are my thoughts. What do you think?

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About Steven D. Greydanus

SDG
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Steven D. Greydanus is film critic for the National Catholic Register and Decent Films, the online home for his film writing. He writes regularly for Christianity Today, Catholic World Report and other venues, and is a regular guest on several radio shows. Steven has contributed several entries to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, including “The Church and Film” and a number of filmmaker biographies. He has also written about film for the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy. He has a BFA in Media Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and an MA in Religious Studies from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Overbrook, PA. He is pursuing diaconal studies in the Archdiocese of Newark. Steven and Suzanne have seven children.