Sir Michael Parkinson once said that British reality-television star, Jade Goody, had come to represent ‘all that’s paltry and wretched about Britain’. He was criticised for his comments because Goody had recently died of cancer at the age of 27. Had his comments been made when she was alive and not dying hardly anybody would have cared because his comments were harsh but fair. The criticism came because of his timing.
In Thoughts for the Times on War and Death Freud wrote that society seems to adopt ‘a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done … This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.’
Speaking ill of the dead is considered socially inappropriate even to those who do not believe the dead continue to exist in some form post mortem. Although it’s true that even the worst people have good qualities and that death is a time for reflection it is slightly baffling that people refuse to speak ill of those no longer living.
Ignoring the terrible qualities or actions of a person just because they’re dead isn’t honest and is unfair to those who fell victim to those qualities or actions. Death doesn’t cancel out the life you lived so why do we pretend it does?
I write this on the day that the news has broken that Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church [WBC] fame has died. Phelps hurt people through the actions of the WBC and through his words. WBC protested at the funerals of strangers with him in command, they set up websites to monitor the length of time gay men had been in hell following their deaths, and they are abusive and repulsive on every platform they are ever offered. His death has been welcomed by many because he was a horrendous, hateful, intolerant and angry person.
There is talk of people protesting at his funeral and people are debating whether it’s a good idea or not. People have criticised the idea as distasteful and sinking to the level of the WBC, others feel strongly that a taste of their own medicine would do the Phelps family good, and then there are those who just want to lash out. The anger and hatred of Fred Phelps is justified, but so too are the questions of the tastefulness of protesting at his funeral.
There are no winners in this game, and although a bad man died today the world didn’t change. The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead and so the Phelps legacy lives on regardless of how we speak about a dead man. With this in mind I have instead made a donation to Stonewall and the Terence Higgins Trust in memory of Fred Phelps. It’s the best ‘fuck you‘ I can muster. I’d urge you to do the same.