Thursday, February 18, 2016

τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν

Memento mori

We assume a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done, and issue the command, De mortuis nil nisi bene: we act as if we were justified in singing his praises at the funeral oration, and inscribe only what is to his advantage on the tombstone. This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.

--Sigmund Freud

"The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones..."

--William Shakespeare

News of the death of another famous person raises again the spectre of death in our own lives, and not surprisingly the concept of not speaking ill of the dead.  Screw it, some say; it's the price of being a person we didn't like in life.

Well, I didn't like Antonin Scalia's legal opinions.  I feel no compunction in speaking ill of them, as I did it when he was alive.  But I had no idea Mr. Scalia was good friends with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Justice whose legal opinions I do admire.  Should I think less of Justice Ginsburg?  Or reflect that I didn't know Scalia personally, at all; and despite the fact the anecdotes I've read about him since his death don't endear him to me, why should I speak ill of him now?

His legal opinions I can denigrate.  The outcome of his actions I can decry, at least insofar as they are the actions of his professional efforts.  Mine, too, will come to judgment, pitiful though they are.  More likely mine won't even be noticed, so I won't leave my friends and family behind to suffer the slings and arrows of an outraged public.

But already the politicians in Washington are behaving like jackals at the feast; like the lawyers left behind by Ivan Ilyich, whose only thought is to their advancement, to the furtherance of their careers, now that a place has been left open by the death of one they no longer regard as of any interest to them.

Are these things right, or wrong?

And:  "My death; is it possible?"  That's the question raised by the death of someone else.  One defense to castigating the person of Scalia is that people will talk ill of the critic when her time comes, so turnabout is fair play.  But the fact is, people can speak ill of you now.  Whether they will bother to speak of you at all after you are dead, is beyond your care or control.  Like telling people what you want at your funeral, it is an exercise in denying the reality of your own death to declare yourself fair game for the potshots of those who bother to remember you at all.  You won't be there, and what is said about you is said for the benefit of the living.

And especially in a time of mourning, why would you insult the living?  While he was alive I had realized, hazily, that Antonin Scalia was married, that he had a wife.  Until two days ago I had never considered that he had an adult son; and perhaps he has other children.  If I speak ill of the late Mr. Scalia, if I castigate him for being the person he was, not just for the legal arguments he made, am I not speaking, even indirectly, to his children?  And why do I want to insult them?  I can't argue with Mr. Scalia any more; why should I make his family his proxy?

I was criticized as a bad person when I was in the pulpit; perhaps that is why I am so sensitive to this issue.  My decisions were made as a pastor, in the role I held.  They weren't made as personal opinions on which people in my care were good, which were bad; but still, they were treated that way.  I was treated that way; and I saw what it did to my wife, to my child.  That's probably why, more than any other reason, I finally turned my back on the ministry, why I am glad I never found another place in another church.

My decisions as a pastor can be criticized; my wife is still my kindest but sharpest critic:  she sees with clear eyes what I did wrong.  But she understands my decisions were not a reflection of my personhood, that what I did wrong was not because I am a "dick."  I'm a great admirer of the works of a great many people; that doesn't mean I admire their personal lives, or the choices they have made in how they treat others.  I am not so perfect I can sit in the seat of judgment, or point a finger and not have three more fingers pointing back at me.

But above all, we do not speak ill of the dead because they are beyond correcting the record we want to lay down.  As Shakespeare noted, it is the evil we do that lives after us, and not just because evil is permanent, and good evanescent.  It is because the living find it easier to remember the evil done by the dead.  The living tend to use that to feel better about themselves,  even to imagine death will not be the same for them.  If our evil lives after us, it is because the good we try to do is so easily forgotten.  Even in our own lives we remember pain far longer than we remember pleasure.  As Ecclesiastes noted:

There was once a small town with few inhabitants, which a great king came to attack; he surrounded it and constructed huge siege-works against it.   There was in it a poor wise man, and he saved the town by his wisdom.  But no one remembered that poor man.  (Ecclesiastes 9:14-15, REB)

The evil men do lives long after them; the good is interred with their bones.  If we speak ill of the dead, it is because it is so easy to do so.  If we refrain, it is from respect for their family, their friends, even their memory.  If we refrain, it is the least measure of respect and decency we should ask for ourselves; for our family and friends.

Remember your Creator before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, before the pitcher is shattered at the spring and the wheel broken at the well, before the dust returns to the earth as it began and the spirit returns to God who gave it.  (Ecclesiastes 12: 6-7, REB)

Ideas don't matter; things don't matter.  People matter.

De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.


  1. Or as one of my wicked friends said:

    De mortuis nil nisi bonum.
    Of the dead, speak only good.
    Antonin Scalia is dead.

    And wicked me, how did I respond? I laughed.

    After my first reflexive thought that I was relieved Scalia was dead, I collected myself and wrote the following on my Facebook page:

    What I think and what I feel about the death of Justice Scalia is not entirely within my control, but what I say publicly is. My private and now my public prayer: May Antonin Scalia rest in peace. May God give comfort and consolation to all who love him.

    My statement after I collected myself was genuine, as was my first thought and my spontaneous laughter at my friend's post. Sometimes we just do the best we can.