Since before the time I have blogged about it, or blogged about anything at all, I have been fascinated by the role of death in reputation, and yesterday provided two very distinct occasions where I had cause to ponder about this. After services, which I missed the vast majority of thanks to Sabbath School and somewhat slow-eating younglings, and after a practice for an ensemble piece we are working on for Trumpets, there was a memorial today for one of the members of our congregation who recently died after having some serious heart problems. Later, after the memorial was done, I had the chance to talk to someone who shared a story that had appeared on Oregon Live about her nephew, someone I had never known, who had died of a heart attack in conditions that I could definitely relate to and found deeply troubling for different reasons.
It is worthwhile to talk about both of these incidents in a bit more detail as they detail different ways that speaking of the ill can be a problem. In the case of my acquaintance, someone I did not know well but had known a bit for the past few years, I had known him with his wife and had seen her face years of dialysis before dying herself, and seen him as an ailing widower who struggled against the ill health that dogged him for years. He was related by marriage to other people I knew well and was part of the large kinship circles of people I happened to know well, all of which made for interesting material. I had never known any of his children, though, nor any of his previous wives, and it was interesting to see that in the slide show at the memorial that while his ex-wife spoke up about her lament that she had not stayed close to his family, I also noticed that she was not prominently mentioned in the slideshow, and nothing was said at all about the wives that the deceased man had apparently had between her and his last wife.
And the second situation was thought provoking in its own ways. One of the brother-in-laws of a member of the congregation I attend had sued a company whose employee had filed a malicious lawsuit accusing his son (my acquaintance’s nephew) of child pornography, the sort of crime that few people have any sort of compassion about. He was roughly treated, was cleared of the charges, but as is often the case in such matters it is impossible to clear one’s good name even with being cleared of all charges and he ended up suffering great stress and dying of a heart attack in a state of considerable despair. My acquaintance thought, and I think correctly, that her relative was seeking to profit off of the death of his son, and thinks that the fact that the father was abusive to him means that it is likely that the son was himself abusive in that generational cycle of abuse and dysfunction. This is likely an aspect of the corrosive aspects of doubt that the person seeking the news story had not kept in mind, the mistaken belief that wherever there is smoke there is fire.
That leads us naturally into the question of the problems of not speaking ill of the dead. Although this is a general rule that we tend to have because it makes social relationships easier, it is worthwhile to examine the limitations of this particular kind of rule. For example, people whom we dislike will seldom be protected by the avoidance of speaking evil about, especially if they are famous people or have a high reputation that we think is undeserved. The fact that someone is dead and unable to defend themselves will seldom hinder us from speaking evil of them, regardless of our own concert that our lack of compunction in speaking ill of the dead will mean that people will be more likely to speak all kinds of lies about us once we are not able to defend ourselves. Likewise, if we have a passionate devotion to what we view as the efficacy and morality of speaking ugly truths about people who are alive and dead we will similarly not be inclined to avoid speaking ill of the dead. Still, I have always considered it to be more important to understand the living and the dead than devote myself to speaking well or good of them.
It appears likely that the interest in avoiding speaking ill of the dead springs in part from an awareness that showing restraint and courtesy when dealing with the dead in our own lives, many of whom we have complicated relationships with, will encourage others to be charitable and restrained in dealing with our reputation when we are dead. Even speaking the truth of others is not speaking evil of them, but we may have to be careful what we view as truth because our interpretations are things we often believe to be gospel truth but can be partial or mistaken. In the absence of recovering restraint in discussing unpleasant aspects about the lives and character of others, it seems unlikely that knowledge of our mortality would long discourage us from speaking about others, but how such restraint is to be cultivated in an age where restraint is hatefully opposed and mocked is a difficult question that it seems impossible to resolve.