“Why We’re Taught Not to Speak Ill of the Dead”

Jim Geraghty’s column today, “Why We’re Taught Not to Speak Ill of the Dead,” is a healthy, helpful reflection on death. And, the bases of his argument are thoroughly consistent with Christian belief.

He first points to the value of listening to wisdom from the past. This is particularly helpful in an age when so many seem to think there is nothing to learn from those who’ve gone before us.

We used to widely honor the instruction to not speak ill of the dead, at least in media and public communications. But in our modern era of social media, the instinct is largely the opposite.

the modern advocates for speaking ill of the dead seem oddly confident that the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare and everyone else before them could not possibly have grasped the moral nuances of this uniquely modern circumstance of a controversial figure dying.

Then, Geraghty reminds us of the universality of death and suggests the way we react to news of the death of celebrities (ones we like and ones we don’t) probably reflects on our own wrestling with the unavoidable reality of death. His appeal to recognizing our shared humanity, including our frailty and finiteness is a needed word for today.

I suspect the saying is driven by a sense of universal empathy. The public figures you love and adore will die. The public figures you hate and detest will die. In their final moments, the differences between them will become quite insignificant. Few of us are likely to feel “ready” to die when our time comes. Few of us will believe, in our final days, that we lived with no regrets. In our final moments, we are likely to feel vulnerable, frightened, and perhaps pained. Even the most powerful dictator looks frail and weak and sad on his deathbed. Death humbles us all, and death comes for us all.

We have a hard enough time grappling with our own mortality as is. … Recognizing that the public figures we can’t stand are human beings means recognizing that they are mortal, and that they are as vulnerable to age and cancer or heart disease other health problems as anyone else. That is one more stark reminder that our days are numbered as well. The powerful and wealthy and famous may have the resources and good doctors to delay the grim reaper’s arrival for a bit, but not to deny him.

No matter how much we may think that we are different from those we vehemently oppose, they are as human and mortal as we are, and we are all going to end up in the same grave; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Perhaps we say we should not speak ill of the dead because the finality of death should also mark the end of our disagreement with the departed. … they’ve gone to meet their Creator now; our argument with them is finished.

Geraghty’s column is occasioned by the death of one specific person, but the truths are universal. Christians need to be people who empathize with others in death, who recognize our own weaknesses and failures, and who are reminded of our own mortality and need of God’s grace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *