De mortuis nil nisi bonum

Charles 9 Comments

Pace the spirit of the age, a celebration-of-life funeral does not fit everybody. Nasty, bad, horrible people die, too. We refrain from holding celebration-of-death funerals for them, preferring instead to curtail, allude and acknowledge, to a degree, often disguising our meaning between the lines. Difficult people die, too. They often mean different things to different people. As any celebrant or undertaker will tell you, they’re possibly the hardest of the lot. 

Mrs Thatcher was one of the latter. In the shadow of the old idea that one mustn’t speak ill of the dead, there’s been a lot of talk about what we may and what we mustn’t say about her just now, before she’s had her funeral. 

In the Independent, the philosopher AC Grayling wrote this:

Why should one not speak as one did when the person was alive? The story of a prominent individual’s life cannot be complete without the truth about what people felt at the moment of summing up, whether it is in mourning or rejoicing. Let us say what we think, and be frank about it: death does not confer privileges.

Respect for the dead is a hangover from a past in which it was believed that the dead might retain some active influence on the living, and that one might re-encounter them either in this life or a putative next life.

Future historians will be glad that people have begun to speak frankly of their estimations of major figures when they die. Frank opinions explain far more than the massaged and not infrequently hypocritical views expressed in obsequies [he means eulogies, of course].

The democratic value of frank expression of opinions about public figures and public matters should not be hostage to squeamishness or false ideas of respect – let us respect ourselves instead, and say what we truly feel.

In The Times, Libby Purves responded thus:

In November 1990 a young Quaker was staying with us. He was even more anti-Thatcher than me, but as the news of her fall from office came, he took George Fox’s advice to “walk cheerfully across the world, answering that of God in every one” and muttered unironically: “I hope she’ll be happy.”

The nastiness of the past few days on the streets, online and sometimes in print raises a bigger question about our attitude to death itself. Traditionally it “pays all debts” and you do not insult the newly deceased at least until after the funeral and family shock, when history may claim its due. To dance in the streets when a dictator falls is understandable, so is the soldier who, fresh from extreme danger, high-fives at a successful shot. But we don’t let the soldier urinate on the corpse. We bury enemies decently. We acknowledge the fellowship of mortality.

For the modish entrepreneurial philosopher Professor A. C. Grayling, this is nonsense. “Do we owe the dead respect, even if we disagreed with them?” he pipes scornfully. For him the Bitch-Is-Dead celebrations are “understandable and justifiable” and “death does not confer privileges”. Respect is “a hangover from a past in which it was believed that the dead might retain some active influence on the living”. He likens it to Chinese ancestor worship. “Honouring the dead is not only a form of remembrance but propitiation.”

Concluding, Professor Grayling condemns “false” respect and smirks: “Let us respect ourselves instead.” There lies all the smug, narrow, self-regarding, inhumane, mechanistic aridity of atheist academe. Thank goodness he’s still alive, so I can say so straightaway.

Finally, on Facebook, and not à propos Thatcher, the celebrant Lol Owen wrote this:

I’ve written services for some right swine. For my own father’s service, who definitely had many faults, there was nothing to be gained from disclosing any of them. It would in no way validate our feelings towards him, and only diminish him in the eyes of others. Those who know the truth will gain nothing from shouting it from the rooftops. Rather, they will look small people.


  1. Charles

    Very interesting post Charles. I think “celebrant” is a lousy title but we seem to be stuck with it. Seems obvious enough that some funerals are, or involve, celebrations, others do not. It can be an attempt at a euphemistic avoidance of grief to refer routinely to a funeral as a celebration of life.

    Loved the spat between Purves and Grayling. There’s a balance to strike, surely. Let’s comment on what Thatcher, or anyone else, did without the sort of self-demeaning cruelty displayed by those who say they hope she burns in hell etc. Such people would seem to put aside the fact that she was a human being with a family. This kind of restraint, within a particular time-scale, is nothing to do with ancient attitudes towards death, nor a sort of phony respect-because-she’s-dead-and-was-famous, nor need it be about “God in everyone.” It’s simply acknowledging our common humanity.

  2. Charles

    No harm in saying you disagreed with someone who has died (eg Milliband’s comments about Lady T) but metaphorically dancing on a grave is unpleasant.

    However, in the spirit of Thatcherism, I’m all for free speech (Hugh Grant’s Hacked Off brigade hack me off). I don’t think Ding-Dong should be banned from airplay in the singles charts. I pity the haters, and am confident they are an irrelevant minority.

    It’s interesting though that while right-wingers see left-wingers as misguided they can accept them as nice enough people. They tend not to hate them in the way that some left-wingers actually perceive right-wingers as genuinely evil. The same applies to the hate some atheists feel towards Christians, a bitterness that is rarely reciprocated.

    We can all think what we like. For me, Lady T is an inspiration, a woman of principle who stood up for freedom, a stand that improved Britain and the world.

  3. Charles

    Fame at last!
    @ Gloria: I hate the title “Celebrant” and prefer to refer to myself as an Independent Minister, which since I am a christian is part true!
    I think regarding Margaret it’s difficult to keep politics out of it. Being somewhat right of centre myself I am aggrieved by much of what Blair and Brown have done to change the cultural landscape of this country, both socially and economically, yet will I celebrate when they die? of course not.
    I also doubt the far lefts opposite numbers, the far right, will be having Nuremberg style rallies when Blair finally shuffles off, they will continue with their rabid hatred of long held, and possibly a few newly gained, targets.

  4. Charles

    Richard, much as I like a great deal of what you write, that bit about right wingers being tolerant forgiving folk who look upon the left as being foolish children is a load of crap. Most right wingers I know don’t even feel that way about their own kind, but are distinguished by a lack of compassion that borders on latent psychopathic contempt for anyone who doesn’t completely agree with them.
    I am genuinely surprised that the north of England, Wales and all of Scotland haven’t emptied to day to pour into London to express their joy at the departure of their nemesis. I can only surmise that a combination of no jobs and the soaring privatised rail fares have made it impossible.
    And when is Mark Thatcher going to be stripped of his knighthood, if only for not doing the decent thing and joining Simon Mann in a hellish African chokey? Horrible, venal, cowardly incompetent berk.

  5. Charles

    ‘Bestowed by mum’?
    It was created by the Queen on the recommendation of John Major who was the PM at the time.
    As Charles points out an unusual or possibly dubious aspect of the baronetcy is that it is hereditary.

    Interesting blog responses I like the comments that the left wingers are unreasonable and ‘hate’. In response the left wingers say ‘crap’ and it is the right wingers that are the unreasonable. Perhaps both extremes are unreasonable or maybe neither are?

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