Search the Site

Speaking Ill of the Dead

Have you ever been to a funeral or memorial service where someone stands up and trashes the deceased? It’s often a subtle or left-handed insult, but it sticks out like a black rose in a field of white ones. My reaction to such comments is probably typical: part of me applauds their honesty; and another part of me is saddened that the insulter felt compelled to use this occasion to lash out.

Speaking ill of the dead is of course an age-old issue. But two recent articles show that it is very much alive and well. This very interesting N.Y. Times article is about, an online obituary site (nice idea, that) with guest books that allow people to contribute their personal remembrances about the deceased. What the article is really about is how Legacy works hard to keep nasty comments out of the guest books. The company has 45 screeners who try to weed the nastiness out of roughly 18,000 daily comments. Here is a sampling of the purged comments:

“I sincerely hope the Lord has more mercy on him than he had on me during my years reporting to him at the Welfare Department.”

“She never took the time to meet me, but I understand she was a wonderful grandmother to her other grandchildren.”

“Reading the obit, he sounds like he was a great father.” Signed by “his son Peter.”

Over at the Wall Street Journal editorial page, meanwhile, speaking ill of the dead is a-okay. Yesterday, the influential Rutgers anthropologist Lionel Tiger published a piece that, at first glance, seemed to be an appreciation of the recently departed Clifford Geertz, the influential anthropologist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. But Tiger’s article is in fact pure smackdown. Here are some key sentences:

“Unhappily, in my opinion (and not only mine), [Geertz’s] influence and impact were real but fundamentally unfortunate in the social sciences. He was a major contributor to the willfully fuzzy illogic which continues to plague the social sciences.”

“He became the anthropological enforcer for the New York Review of Books and, like Steven Jay Gould in biology, intricately upheld a conventional worldview which provided intimidating intellectual cover for politically correct thoughts and deeds.”

“His death, like any other, is mystifyingly sad. But it will be the beginning of an exploration of just what it was about his life and our times that sustained such a static gloomy icon.”

Just as at a funeral, I am partially appreciative of Tiger’s candor, and his argument against Geertz’s work is fascinating and enlightening. But I’m also more than a little grossed out by this very public stomping of a man who died exactly one week earlier. Couldn’t Tiger have saved his diatribe for a few months, or for an occasion that warranted it? Couldn’t he have made his article less personal, and more about his differences with Geertz’s worldview than with Geertz himself? I am also put off by one of Tiger’s final phrases, about Geertz’s death being “mystifyingly sad.” Tiger does not seem to consider Geertz’s death mystifyingly sad at all, or even sad, and certainly not mystifying. The sentence therefore comes off as patronizing, a fake smile to cover the sneer.

Anyway … I hope I die long after Tiger does (he is nearly 70 years old), but if not, please don’t invite him to my funeral.