Friday, August 28, 2009


Several conservative blogs I frequent have had comments sections burning over in fury about Ted Kennedy. No need to list why - you already know the things he did. Within the same threads others, equally conservative, have had less invective, choosing to comment more on what the Democrats are making of his death. Some object to the sappy hagiography of a deeply flawed individual. Others analyse why he was so iconic to the left.

A third group, also conservative, strives to be as gracious as they can. I understand all three groups but lean emotionally more to that last group. It seems polite. Don't speak ill of the dead. As a typically blunt person, perhaps it seems odd that I should tend to this last category. It seems odd even to me, so I have tried to piece together where this attitude comes from. Why would we consider it simple politeness to behave this way. It is not as if such a rule were universal in our society - it certainly has not been on the left in the last decades.

It seems an older value, a politeness more common in an earlier era. Is it also regional, more a New England thing? Is it even more ancient, left over from superstitious times when people feared that the recently dead were more of a danger, until they were finally put to rest on All Hallow's Eve? Did it hang on longer on places with stable populations, where memories were long and grudges held?

I relate it to the New England virtue of modesty, where one does not make a scene; one does not brag; one does not discuss how much you make or how much expensive things cost; one's religious beliefs are not advertised to an admiring bog. I can't make a solid intellectual connection, but these things seem related in my mind and I cannot fully shed them even when I disagree with them.

The entire concept of modesty set me thinking in other directions, one of which I will develop as an addition to my series on the origins of liberal values. But for now, I am most concerned with this one value of not speaking ill of the dead. Is it an archaic value that we should allow to fall out of fashion, or is it intimately tied up with other whole packages of virtue?


Donna B. said...

Modesty would require not speaking dishonestly of the dead to make them appear to be more worthy than they perhaps were.

Boethius said...

I agree with you, Donna B. I wonder what ever happened to "having your house in order" before you could be responsible for decisions affecting other households. What good is it that you helped others with the power of your position when your family is in need of help as a direct consequence of your behaviors? How could Massachusetts continue to elect him over and over again?

jaed said...

Donna B.'s comment points up a basic conflict here between two norms:

- Speak no ill of the dead.

- Be honest and do not allow blatant dishonesty to go uncorrected.

What do you do when the people around you are uttering fulsome nonsense about a recently deceased person who was in fact not that admirable? One doesn't wish to trash the dead. One also doesn't want the record to become distorted through reticence about the recently dead.

Part of the reason for the rule about speaking ill of the dead, I think, is that at least the dead person can now do no more harm; it's over and done with and there's nothing to be gained by chewing it over. Let's say the deceased had a habit of beating his children; that's evil, but there is no point in going into it in detail. It will only cause pain to his loved ones, and it's too late to stop him from doing it anyway. Discussing it does not prevent harm and may cause it.

However, what if some of the relatives start gushing about how much he loved his children, how he was always so good to them even though they were unaccountably ungrateful? Now there's actual harm being done - to the reputation of the children, to their feelings (one imagines), and also to the accuracy of the remembrance of this man. You don't have to foreground the bad things he did, but they shouldn't be wiped out of memory by falsehoods either.

I suspect the norm ultimately comes from the feeling that rehearsing the shortcomings of the dead is nothing but spite. To some extent I agree with that. But "tell the truth and shame the devil" is also an old and honored norm.

terri said...

We don't speak ill of the dead for the sake of the living. Whomever Kennedy was and is in the eyes of some people, his family shouldn't have to hear those who didn't like him rejoice in his death....especially before he's even in the ground.

I think that principle holds true in most cases.

People don't mind speaking ill of the dead, and there's nothing wrong with it if it's truthful, but it's appropriate to at least wait until the body is cold.