Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Speaking ill of the dead

When my uncle died, coming out of his funeral, his wife, my aunt, wryly observed that she had not known that she had been married to such a good man (much as she had loved him)!

On the day after Baroness Thatcher's death, predictably, the right wing press are both outraged at the hostility that her death has reawakened in many (and its expression) and suggeting that one should not speak ill of the dead out of respect for private grief (though embarrassing hagiography is all too permissible).

Personally, I think, the one thing death requires of us is honesty. Let our yea be yea and our no be no. Last week watching from afar the funeral ghat in Kathmandu where a woman dissolved into an utterly physical embodiment of her grief, I was reminded of this. Death, whatever it brings, is, in itself, brutal, we stand exposed, so we ought to respond to it nakedly, with all that we have.

Thus, even in private, ideally what matters is the honouring of the completest of pictures that you can allow yourself, in that is compassion. In some traditions, the departed soul is proceeding through a similar process - of being addressed or confronted by a complete picture of their life - and in those traditions the sooner we learn to do this, do this now, the more likely we are to successfully navigate into the future. Like the poet, Kathleen Raine, who I most fear to find beyond death's veil is a face too merciful for my own devil peopled soul to bear - and not having my myriad faults witnessed to at my death would be depressing!

However if we cannot manage the compassionate ideal, better I expect to express the reality of our emotion than pretending respect. I recall a Desert Island discs when the writer Anthony Horowitz, I believe, recalled himself and his two siblings literally dancing on their mother's grave at her death. In their eyes, rightly or wrongly, she was a monster, better to accept the authenticity of that and see it on its way in suitable ritual than bottling it up in pretended grief (and respect).

Mrs Thatcher was an astonishingly divisive figure and pretending otherwise is no way of debating (or realising) her legacy. It neither honours her nor, more importantly, the truth.

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