People really hate talking about death. Sorry, “passing on.”
I’ve never understood the squeamishness around the topic, but I was the child who wanted to visit graveyards with tissue paper and charcoal to do rubbings of old tombstones; my mother called me Wednesday Addams. I’ve chortled my way through Jessica Mitford’s exposé of the American funeral industrial complex The American Way of Death multiple times; I subscribed to Mortuary Management, the trade publication for morticians, for a year in my 20s. (They were quite peevish when CostCo began selling coffins.)
I am therefore frequently blindsided and befuddled and bemused by people’s reactions when someone dies.
Twitter, of course, has made public grieving into a sport, but I’m not talking about the fans who make a death about them or tweet pap like “Rest in Power.” I’m talking about the collective decision that the dead deserve our respect.
Rush Limbaugh, who died at the age of 70 February 17 and mercifully left behind no children, does not deserve respect.
Death does not wipe the slate clean. Death is not Donald Trump leaving office, so why bother holding a second impeachment trial? Death is a time for toting up the wins and losses, and obituaries are the first drafts of how history will remember those deserving mainstream coverage.
But in today’s prim, puritanical worldview—and who knew that generations of English students forced to read The Crucible aloud would turn into priggish little Susannah Walcotts?—the dead become untouchables. Even the dead who coined the phrase “feminazi” and gleefully recounted AIDS-related death counts on his right-wing radio program. Even the dead who were creditably accused of rape.
I never want to seem pedantic, but let me adjust my fashion frames and make a bold claim: This began when society collectively began dumbing down and softening the language around death. Mitford talks about this a lot in her book, having great fun with phrases like “cremains” and “the loved one” instead of “ashes” and “corpse.” At previous jobs, writers on my staff have balked at using “dead” or “died” in obituary headlines because it seems so blunt. Whisper “passed away” all you want, but we all know what it means. We just wonder why you’re using milquetoast language to tell us.
And that person is still the person who did all the same things he did 12 hours ago, when he was still alive. You don’t get a gold star for refraining from speaking ill of the dead, not if they deserve it. And jokes are never too soon; just remember the brave queens who showed up at Halloween parties with bloodied heads and clutching steering wheels, not even two months after Princess Grace’s death.
So to paraphrase the last episode of Feud (also known as the only good Ryan Murphy series), we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, only good. Rush Limbaugh is dead. Good.
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