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.