How soon is “too soon” to speak ill of the dead?

OF_MTLOpenFile Montreal, April 20, 2012 (site no longer active)

A short while ago OpenFile published a blog post about a journalism professor who died. Following the article, a number of people posted comments remembering him fondly and praising him as a teacher. But then, a few people began posting some very negative comments.

This and other recent events — such as jokes that began to circulate soon after Whitney Houston’s death — got OpenFile thinking about “how soon is too soon?” to speak ill of the dead. It also raises the question of whether social media has changed the way people react to and deal with death.

Journalist David Frum faced this dilemma when he wrote about American publisher Andrew Breitbart, who died on March 1, 2012. In an article in the Daily Beast, Frum wrote, “To speak only ‘good’ of Andrew Breitbart would be to miss the story and indeed to misunderstand the man.” While Frum outlined many of his subject’s positive traits, he also spoke of the “poisonous” impact the man’s actions had on American media and politics.

In an interview with OpenFile, Frum said he considered very hard how to speak about Breitbart. “When you write about someone who has recently died, you must be conscious that among those who will read it are people who are grieving,” he said. “You must never lose sight of that fact.”

He believes that mockery, disparagement, or airing personal grudges are never appropriate. The challenge, he said, is when discussing the public record of someone in public life. For example, if you’re talking about a CEO whose mismanagement drove a company to bankruptcy, or a general whose mistake caused the loss of an important battle, the truth has to be acknowledged.

“At the hour of death, we want to do justice,” said Frum. “Most people’s record is mixed.”

 

How do you sum up a life?

Philip Fine, a Montreal writer who contributes regularly to the Globe and Mail’s obituary page, agrees. “In general, an obituary is an elevated look at a person’s life. You’re looking for how this person made their mark, their claim to fame,” says Fine, who was awarded a “Grimmy” by the Society of Professional Obituary Writers in 2011 for Best Body of Work in Obituary Writing (Long Form).

He goes by the rule that whatever is on the public record is fair game. But it’s also about context — that is, whether or not that event or negative trait had an impact on who that person was.

Fine gives the example of an obituary about a Toronto lawyer who got caught in a hotel room having an affair with a woman when she died suddenly; drugs were involved. The event changed the direction of the person’s career, so it was important for the obituary writer to mention it.

On the other hand, Fine once wrote about a Canadian artist who was a heavy drinker and had a violent temper. “But that was not what defined him. He made an amazing contribution as a prodigious war artist. It would have been unfair to play up his alcoholism and raging temper.” Fine didn’t ignore these traits entirely, but mentioned them in a subtle way.

 

Social media blurs lines

In the age of online media, everything is not only faster, but the lines between private and public have become blurred.

Montreal grief educator and counsellor Dawn Cruchet points out that social media tends to make us more impulsive. Because it’s so easy to post comments, and often anonymous, we forget to think about the consequences. “Social media decreases our impulse control,” she says. “You get caught up in the ‘cyber frenzy’.”

In some cases, this can be good: for example, it’s become common for people to express their condolences on Facebook. Not all these people would have taken the time to call or send a card.

But it can go both ways. In the past, if one of your former teachers died, you might have thought “he wasn’t a very good teacher,” but you probably would have kept those comments to yourself. Now, when you go online and read comment after comment about how great he was, you feel compelled to respond.

Unfortunately, such negative comments can be very hurtful to the family, Cruchet says.

Ultimately, it’s not really a question of whether or not it’s too soon. “Time is not a factor,” says Cruchet. “But social media has made it happen immediately.”

 

Princess Diana vs. Whitney Houston

In the case of a public figure, our reaction often depends on how we identify with the person or situation. When Princess Diana died, Cruchet was invited into a Montreal radio station to respond to listeners’ calls on the air.

“People were calling in for three hours,” she recalls. Because Princess Diana was young and had two children, a lot of women identified with her. “It’s that whole connection with our personal experiences: we think, ‘If it can happen to her, it can happen to me.’ That’s pretty scary.”

Identification with a situation can also stir up memories and old feelings, consciously or not. In the case of Whitney Houston’s death, for example, people who had a family member with a substance abuse problem might have felt particularly affected.

“One loss awakens another. You can react with no impulse control and get quite fired up about it,” says Cruchet. Yet because our society rarely discusses death or the grief process, she adds, people don’t realize that this is a perfectly normal reaction.