By Jim Geraghty, National Review
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. When a prominent political figure passes away, those who loathed the figure jump online and instantly proclaim how happy they are that the person has died, how terrible the figure was, how they hope that figure is burning in hell, etc.
Such was the case immediately following the death last week of Rush Limbaugh.
You can find a lot of hackneyed columns disputing the old edict to not speak ill of the dead, particularly after the death of a prominent conservative, with all the columnists convinced they’ve discovered the amazing truth that indisputable villains of life die too, and no one would object to speaking ill of Adolf Hitler.
The aphorism dates back to Greece in 600 b.c., and 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.
Or they contend that holding one’s tongue about the recently departed represents a compromise of the truth or an instruction to lie. But the aphorism bars one action; it does not compel other actions. It is not an instruction or requirement to praise the dead and certainly not one to bear false witness in praising the departed. Nor does the instruction forbid silence in response to the passing of a life. The American version of the custom really only asks people to refrain from expressing their disdain for the departed in public for a short period of time after the death. No one really cares if you privately get grim satisfaction out of someone departing this earth, and there will be few complaints if you uncork your long-simmering denunciatory diatribe about the departed a month later.
And yet, for many figures obscure and better known, the edict is just too much to ask.
The first argument put forth in defense of holding one’s criticism of the recently departed is that the figure’s loved ones are in mourning. That’s true, but we have no way of knowing if our words will reach the ears or eyes of mourning family or friends, and that cannot be our sole or deciding concern. Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Qasem Soleimani, Timothy McVeigh, and Samuel Little had loved ones who mourned their deaths.
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. It gets even tougher when a beloved or iconic figure who seemed likely to be around forever — say, Alex Trebek — shuffles off this mortal coil. 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.
The sadness and grief of Rush Limbaugh’s loved ones today is indistinguishable from the sadness and grief of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s loved ones in September or John Lewis’s loved ones or Herman Cain’s loved ones in July. 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.
Read more at National Review