Speaking ill of the dead and their grieving relatives is something that those of us with any social graces tend to avoid. We take the higher road out of respect for those who have passed, no matter how much we may have disliked them or how vile they may have been, primarily because they no longer are able to defend themselves, at least in public.
Of course, it is doubtful that little good was said following the passing of the likes of Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin or others of their ilk.
The issue of how we treat the recently deceased and their families has surfaced again after remarks by Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz about Vice President Joe Biden. Cruz told an audience at a fundraiser in Michigan: “Vice President Joe Biden. You know the nice thing? You don’t need a punchline.”
That Cruz trotted out the old joke shortly after the May 30 death of Biden’s son, Beau, made it at once ill-timed, intemperate and inexcusable. And while Cruz later apologized profusely, that gaffe is likely to follow him well into next year’s primaries.
This common courtesy of not speaking ill of the dead has its roots in 6th century Greece and Chilon of Sparta, who is said to have first uttered the phrase, later translated into Latin as: De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (“Of the dead, nothing unless good.”)
In the pre-Internet, pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone era, it is likely that Cruz’s effort at clumsy humor would simply have fallen flat with the audience and little more would have been heard of it.
There are exceptions to that, however. There are certain post-death ripostes that have lived on in fact or in legend well beyond the usual Internet lifespan of an insult.
Union Gen. William T. Sherman so despised newspaper reporters who constantly criticized him that when he learned that three of them had been killed during the battle for Vicksburg, Miss., he is reported to have said: “Good! Now we’ll have news from hell before breakfast.”
Mark Twain is often credited with remarking of someone he disliked: “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
However, that particular bon mot was actually first spoken by former U.S. Attorney General Ebenezer R. Hoar who, when asked if he was going to attend the funeral of a noted abolitionist, replied: “No, but I approve of it.”
Former University of Southern California football coach John McKay, who later went on to coach the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had a long-running feud with San Francisco sports writer Wells Twombly. After learning that Twombly had died at the age of 41, McKay is said to have remarked: “Good.”
While some of these sentiments seem a bit crude, there is a certain element of humor to them that makes us smile, if not laugh, at the nimble minds that produced them.
Given the immediacy of our current methods of communication, however, that sense of élan that once graced insults even in death seems long gone. The Internet has given us a much wider audience with which we can communicate but also has coarsened those communications.
When former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy died, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart called him a “villain,” a “duplicitous b------” and other names unusable in this forum.
The liberals got what seemed to them to be some measure of revenge when Breitbart died in 2012. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, without the slightest hint of creativity, said of Breitbart in his obituary headlined “Death of a ------”: “Good! (Bleep) him. I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead.”
Political differences seem to have a way of bringing out the unbridled invective of those on the opposite ends of the spectrum, for no reason other than those differing viewpoints on matters of state often morph into genuine personal dislike
After conservative political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. died in 2008, his long-time nemesis Gore Vidal wrote: “RIP WFB – in hell.”
When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, the Twitterverse and other social media exploded with comments, many of them negative, about her conservative policies.
British singer David Leask tweeted: “History is often kinder to politicians after their death. In the case of Margaret Thatcher, don’t hold your breath.”
To compound the insults directed at Thatcher, someone started a Facebook campaign to promote “The Wizard of Oz” song “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead” as the most popular tune in Great Britain that week.
What those types of insults tend to do, however, is diminish the insulter and elevate the insulted.
Such was the case when Harvey Ball, the inventor of the ubiquitous and somewhat annoying yellow smiley face, died. An Internet blogger, apparently deeply offended by the round mound of yellow goodness wrote: “Hey Smiley — your old man just died! Still smiling?”
Speaking irreverently of the dead does not always have to address them directly. Making them irrelevant is even more demeaning than can any witty or caustic remark.
So when Democrat presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Libya, said: “What difference at this point does it make?” it rendered the four Americans killed in the attack irrelevant in her eyes.
Clinton’s remarks were the ultimate repudiation of their lives and their sacrifices for their country. She not only spoke ill of the dead, she tamped down the ground on their graves.
As for me, say what you like when I am gone. I won’t be around to defend myself, at least publicly. Just try to spell my name correctly.
Ron Martz is a former journalist and educator and a Northeast Georgia resident.