Speaking ill of the dead

When someone dies they can no longer defend themselves, which makes an attack on their reputation somewhat unfair and one-sided – hence the traditional exhortation not to “speak ill of the dead”.

But when a public figure has recently passed on and is being lauded by his or her associates and supporters – and, in the worst cases, being used to make a political or other point – why is it considered wrong for the other side to counter those claims? Why should a cause get a free kick just because a proponent has just died? Positive spin about a controversial figure doesn’t suddenly become true just because it’s what their family would like to hear.


Even total gits who spent their lives trying to make things worse for other people eventually die. Doesn’t make them saints.

Families of deceased people who bask in the warm glow of public support can’t cry foul at public opposition. Either your grief is private or it isn’t. How can you expect to have it both ways?

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26 responses to “Speaking ill of the dead

  1. I always think you should write things about the dead as if their family – the people mourning them – are reading it.

    There are times to discuss a persons flaws. Before they’re even buried? Not so much.

  2. Depends if there’s a public debate where their allies are using their death to bolster their cause or not, doesn’t it?

  3. I was particularly disturbed by two instances of this kind of thing in recent times.
    Both were perpetrated by the same person.
    First was the untimely and tragic death of David Hookes and the haste with which Melbourne broadcaster Derryn Hinch went with the stories of Hookes’ extra marital (even though he was seperated from wife Robyn) liasons. Notwithstanding that Hinch himself is a self confessed serial philanderer and had no place judging Hookes’ activity, it was extremely sad that the very private Mrs Hookes’ and her family had to be subjested to that kind of crap in the week of their greatest grief.

    The second was the claim, (never proven) by Hinch again, that Graheme Kennedy had died of AIDS related illness. It was well known in Melbourne that Kennedy was gay and nobody cared. There was no possible goo to be gained by exposing this “fact” in order to be seen to be exposing some kind of dirty little secret.
    The damage done to the family was not worth the possible knowledge that it exposed.
    The line that all history owes the dead is the truth may be a powerful claim, but history owes a grieving family some dignity in a time of loss.

  4. Jeremy why does there need to be an us and them for everything?
    Why would it be necessary to counter allies of a dead public figure by trashing them publically at the time of their death? Especially with information that you would not have publically trashed them with prior to thier death?

    Not every pro has to have a publically exposed or discussed con does it? Don’t you think that there are times for that stuff to be discussed and times for it to be ignored in the interest of being respectful and dignified?

  5. It’s not about “trashing” someone, but it’s the same basis as the general exhortation not to speak ill of the dead – fairness. The dead person can’t defend themselves. But when their allies are using their death as a means of pursuing a more general point, then it’s important that the opposing side, also for reasons of fairness and truth, be entitled to contradict them.

    Once something becomes part of public debate, the point is no longer being “respectful and dignified”.

  6. People should be able to say what they like about the recently deceased, as was done in the case of Kerry Packer.

    But then why all the righteous indignation when a few home truths were uttered upon the demise of lady-killer (literally) and waitress sandwicher (along with Chris Dodd) Ted Kennedy.

  7. I agree that there is an entitlement to contradict, but surely in the time immediately after the death of someone, their “allies” using their death as a means of pursuing a more general point does not mean that their enemies accomplish anything by using their deeds prior to death as a means of pursuing a more general opposite point. It’s not the ABC where every minute of one view must be followed by a minute of the opposite view surely.
    And the issue I have with this kind of thing is that it is so often a gushing heap of praise when someone dies and that is countered by people telling stories that they would not, for fear of litigation, told prior to the passing of the subject.

    I’m curious though. Is there someone you had currently in mind?

  8. Can’t say I was terribly upset when Dick Pratt died.

  9. Have to agree with Jeremy here. Respect for the dead should mean putting the politics aside for -all- parties. Using an individual’s death and their loved ones’ loss as a debating tool is disrespectful whether one agreed or disagreed with them during life. It’s also makes for rather bad arguments.

  10. Don’t be such a killjoy, Chook! Whose grave would you really like to dance on? Choose someone living. That way you can’t be accused of speaking ill of the dead, and you have the advantage of hoping that their death is long and painful.

  11. Who died?

  12. Oh, never mind, just read SB’s comment above. This is one of those metaphoric things, right?

  13. “Depends if there’s a public debate where their allies are using their death to bolster their cause or not, doesn’t it?”

    Still doesn’t mean you have to stoop to their level. Just cry foul on those who are exploiting it – but leave the individual alone. They have a family who are still hurting.

  14. “Still doesn’t mean you have to stoop to their level. Just cry foul on those who are exploiting it – but leave the individual alone. They have a family who are still hurting.”

    Yeah. On reflection I think that sums up how I feel about the whole thing. Thats an especially good point about stooping to their level.

  15. I’m not endorsing “stooping to their level”, but I am saying that the public debate requires the opportunity to respond to attacks made on other people using the deceased.

    A better example of what I mean is this post, where Greg Sheridan tastelessly used his father’s death to bash his political opponents.

  16. Sorry Leo, but:

    “subjested”? Is that when someone is critiqued by a clown?

    And presumably the talking beard’s whole point was that he thought (for money and personal fame) that in fact there WAS “possible goo to be gained” from his slimey antics.

  17. I can’t help thinking that this post is a hangover from the bollocking that you got when You wrote about Steve Irwin and Germaine Greer’s ill timed attack upon him before he was even in his grave.

    As I see it everyone deserves to be given a little bit of grace between the time that they die and their funeral. Even if they are one of the world’s most public rat bags that is not too much to ask. What you have to ask yourself is this: ” would those who love me be upset and would their grief be magnified if someone gives me a serve before I am in my grave?”
    Frankly it does not matter if someone is in the public eye or the most private person in the world it is entirely reasonable to denounce anyone who is so intemperate as to demonise the dead while their family is still coming to terms with their loss.

  18. Northern Exposure

    Agreed, there is a time for dancing on their graves, and that’s after they’re actually in it, and the family has left the cemetary.*

    *Metaphorically, although it can be dealers choice.

  19. “Bollocking”, Iain? Which post do you mean? And cheap shots from rent-a-conservatives don’t really count as a “bollocking”.

  20. This
    http://anonymouslefty.blogspot.com/2006/09/global-tv-and-marketing-phenomenon.html
    and this
    http://anonymouslefty.blogspot.com/2006/09/australian-larrikin-values-ambassador.html

    were hardly the highlights of your blogging career now ere they ?
    Fortunately fro you the haloscan comments have evaporated into the ether but I certainly recall that even your most ardent supporters were telling you that you had gone too far at the time and I also recall you fighting a futile battle to justify your position in those two posts
    Do you remember my critique of your then defence of Greer at the time?
    http://iainhall.wordpress.com/2006/09/08/things-you-cant-say-in-australia-or-from-the-uk/
    I seem to recall that Tim Blair was also publicly critical of your position as well But I may be wrong about that.

  21. You and tim Blair being “critical” of me is hardly a “bollocking”. It is a pity that haloscan died, and it’s not “fortunately for me” because I’d much rather they were still there. They wouldn’t back up your rather fanciful rememberings, certainly.

    And I’m not in the slightest bit embarrassed by either of those posts – I think in the context they were more than fair enough. Please, pull out a hateful quote that would have brutally hurt the grieving family.

    I note that your old post above was rude enough not to actually link to my piece in question (also love the childish “Sneer” insult and calling me by my other name), so I’ll include that link here.

    To others I ask – are those posts really “stooping to their level”? I’d say they’re perfectly appropriate responses to the public “debate” at the time.

  22. “You and tim Blair being “critical” of me is hardly a “bollocking”. ”

    Even if it was, I’d be more concerned about being praised by the likes of Blair.

  23. For me the strange thing is when people die from things such as terrorist attacks. They are all saints who loved their families and fantastic members of the community.

    I remember when someone said a couple of years ago about people who died at the 9/11 attacks. “There must have been some arsehole who died that day!” Had to be said I guess.

  24. There were 19 arseholes who died that day. They thought they would wind up in heaven, which in their religion appears to be a high class brothel full of virgins. More likely they will find themselves here

  25. haha that onion articles makes me laugh

    the hijackers used phony passports, so we dont know their real names… but that which we call a rose, by any other name would still burn in hell!

  26. I know some Raytheon execs died that day, so it was more than just 19 arseholes.

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