With the news of Tony Snow’s ultimate departure, we’re faced with yet another round of grappling over how to respond to the death of someone whose temporal behavior enabled dark forces to exercise their plunder and rapine. We are exhorted to hold our tongues out of respect and compassion. And, if we can’t muster that, then out of self-interest, for, inevitably, some day someone we love will be laid to rest. Some day we will be.
Most people who argue, with Chilon of Sparta, that we should speak no ill of the dead put a time limit on their prescription. It’s not that we shouldn’t ever speak ill of the dead, in their view, merely that we should allow the decedent’s family time to get the corpse in the ground before lighting the flamethrowers. It’s understandable in that “we’re all sinners, let God judge” kind of way. Who gets hurt if we roast some war criminal or child molester or lying government shill after the Reaper swings his scythe? Certainly not the target of our wrath. Just kin and friends. What purpose is served by intensifying their grief at its peak? Where is our human kindness?
The trouble with this polite posthumousness isn’t that it gives space to the begrieved, a worthy and understandable behavior. Nor is it that speaking the truth is held in abeyance for a few hours or days. It’s that people who should know better get carried away with themselves. It should be remembered that we’re not talking here about the passing of somebody’s great-aunt Dolores who may have ripped off the collection plate as it passed by or had an affair unbeknownst to great-uncle Phil. We’re speaking of public figures, women and men who so often become saints at graveside services, no matter how despicable their life’s work.