Friday, August 28, 2009

de mortuis nil nisi bonum: an apologia

This week, Senator Edward Kennedy died. His death provided a circumstance for some conservatives to do the same thing that some liberals do when a right winger dies. It seems to be inherent in the thought of some people that no one should be allowed to get away with being praised, even at the time of death. Thus, when Ted Kennedy dies, one group lashes out. When William F. Buckley died last year, a different group did the same. Neither side recognizes the mirror image of themselves in the other. In fact, both groups typically despise their own characteristic when they see it in the inhumanity of the other side.

But, the doctrinaire among us would consider my sniveling about this to be just a sign of weakness. If I disagree with someone who is being lionized, why not lay it all on the table? If others are eulogizing someone I deplore, why not say so? There are principled reasons for, at the time of death, saying something nice – or saying nothing at all.

Death should remind us – if nothing else will – of our common frailty. Our enemies are not cartoon characters, but human beings with families composed of other human beings. All of us – friends and adversaries, allies and foes – are made of flesh and blood and shall one day return to the dust of the earth. It is over the course of our lives that we may disagree, and history will ultimately render its judgments. However, death is a time for weeping, not sneering. It is the time to allow the living and grieving to bury their dead. It is a time to remember that eternal realities trivialize the small things that fill most of our lives.

None of this is to say that we should lie about the qualities of the deceased. Most of us have heard eulogies that seek to turn lifelong sinners into saints, and many of us have learned to abhor those tall tales. But the reality of human grief should give the humane among us pause before rushing in with corrections. Common grace is such that nearly all of us have something admirable that can be remembered fondly. It is not too much to allow friends of the fallen to remember what was good.

At death, the deceased can no longer hear us. Our comments then are only for the living. If the living cannot be civil at death, then there would not seem to be much humanity left in those who remain.

2 Comments:

Blogger Janet Brown said...

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