Speaking ill of the dead (and the living)
Recently when substantial figures in church and state have died – Cardinal Des Connell, Bishop Eamonn Casey, Martin McGuinness – the question has arisen as of how their deaths would be noted or what tributes might be paid to them.
Patsy McGarry in the Irish Times wondered at how few public representatives attended Connell’s funeral and whether as a society we had abandoned basic respect for the dignity of a person with whom we may disagree, even profoundly.
A few days later in the same paper the respected journalist, Colum Kenny, – noting the old taboo summed up in the old Latin tag, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum (‘It is socially inappropriate to speak ill of the dead’) – commented that he disagreed with the idea of what he called ‘romancing public figures’ after they died.
A few days later, in the same paper when historian Diarmuid Ferriter wrote about Eamon Casey there was little evidence of romancing his reputation. Casey, he noted, was a profound hypocrite (‘You couldn’t make him up” was Ferriter’s conclusion).
A few days later again, when Martin McGuinness died, there was still little enough evidence of romancing his reputation, even in the Irish Times or elsewhere. Norman Tebbit, who narrowly survived the 1984 Brighton bombing in which his wife, Margaret, was paralysed, described McGuiness as ‘a multi-murderer and a coward’ and hoped that God had reserved ‘a particularly hot spot’ in Hell for him for the rest of eternity.
A more nuanced approach was taken by Kathleen Gillespie, whose husband, Patsy, lost his life in October 1990 when a 1,100lb IRA bomb exploded in a vehicle he was forced to drive. She sympathised with McGuinness’ widow because she understood the anguish and loss of losing a husband whom she dearly loved and still missed.
While critical and unforgiving words could be expected after McGuinness’ death, a key figure in a campaign of violence that led to 1800 deaths and the serious maiming of thousands more, few were prepared for the homilist at Bishop Casey’s funeral placing such a focus on Casey’s ‘sin’. It seemed unnecessary and insensitive in the presence of a grieving family. It wasn’t as if we weren’t familiar with Casey’s weaknesses and failures, as the homilist himself accepted when he acknowledged that Casey’s ‘story’ was known the world over.
Part of the difficulty is the unrealistic, uncritical and naively attitude we have to our leaders.
For example, while the Catholic Church is happy to acknowledge that we’re all sinners some of its more pious adherents cling to the fiction that those who preach the gospel, especially those who attain high office in the Church, are somehow almost immune to the common failures of human kind. It’s as if the office itself, as though by some form of osmosis, confers an automatic holiness on pope, bishop, priest or nun.
So any spectacular fall from grace necessitates constant renewals of condemnation because of the ‘scandal’ caused to those gullible enough to believe, for instance, that the ordained are different from the rest of humanity as if they have descended through some spiritual genetic avenue. Expected to be different, yes; but different, no.
Politicians are on an even stickier wicket. Puffed up by their supporters and whatever media they can manipulate to establish a positive profile, the higher they go the more the challenge to diminish them in life, if not in death.
But usually when people die, there’s an acceptance that while they may be public figures that the existence of a grieving family moderates the responsibility media feel to dissect their careers and their characters. While Colum Kenny rightly suggests that fulsome eulogies from the altar can be hard to take, the reality is that the funeral is not just about the person who is dead.
A homilist who took it upon himself, for whatever reason, to set the deceased’s record straight at every funeral might impress or even entertain some of the congregation but would rightly enrage anyone with a sensitive bone in their bodies. The antennae of the bereaved are notoriously sensitive and defensive of the deceased, no matter what the circumstances and it’s unacceptable that those entrusted with the privilege of celebrating a funeral Mass would, knowingly or unknowingly, betray that trust, no matter what the justification, or no matter what the perceived justification. If they can’t frame the words needed, to respect the dead and the living, then silence is probably the best policy.
I think we should respect the difficult journey of those who, at a critical juncture in their lives, have a light-bulb moment when they recognise how wrong they were and set out on a different projectory in life. Such Pauline conversions marked the life of Desmond Connell, Eamon Casey and Martin McGuinness. Connell, for example, struggled for years to come to terms with the reality of child sexual abuse by priests because he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that it could have happened. But when it did, he started the process of introducing an effective system of protective, safety protocols now widely imitated. Casey too had his own very public Gethsemane to negotiate.
McGuinness came to a point in his life when he realised the futility, possibly even the insanity, of the effort to bomb a united Ireland into existence and made the difficult transition from militant republican to political democrat. No doubt he had his thoughts about the legacy of violence that destroyed so many lives and families and had to live with his own direct involvement in it. But he helped to forge a still-fragile peace and seemed to have left the bitterness of the past behind him.
Connell, Casey and McGuinness were like the rest of us, flawed and limited human beings, and treating them with respect in death is not a denial of their failures but an expression of the mercy that’s at the heart of the Gospel.
As we used to say, when we were all native speakers of Latin, De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.