Speaking ill of the dead?

11/04/13 | Posted by Ian Black

The death of the former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, has unleashed extreme passions. Some are very angry at anything they can interpret as a slight against her, even if there is none. There are others who have been very offensive in their tone of attack on her name; some have partied. She was a divisive figure and is no less so in death. 'Ding dong the witch is dead', the song from the Wizard of Oz, is rising rapidly through the download charts and is heading towards number one for Sunday - there is an internet campaign dedicated to achieve this.

image
 Margaret Thatcher

There is a maxim that says we should not speak ill of the dead.  The philosopher AC Grayling has challenged this writing in The Independent.  He argues that this belongs to a past age when there was a fear the dead might come back and get us or lie in wait for us and get us after death.  The dead he says have no such hold over us, so fear not.

There is another explanation for restraint in the face of death.  It is well summed up by John Donne’s poem ‘No man is an island’ which includes the lines ‘send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’.  Death is a moment when we are reminded of our own mortality and that is a moment for reflection.  All of us will come to the same end, so those who mock now will be subject to the same fate.  That is a moment for humility and thought.

Donne’s poem also carries a notion that all of us are linked in a fundamental way.  Our humanity unites us and this is a difficult thought when we may hold diametrically opposed views to another.  The repulsion we may feel - for Margaret Thatcher or for those who hold a different view to us on her - is a distraction and potential moment of self deception.  The natural desire is to think of ourselves as being essentially different and the demonising, ‘the witch is dead’, helps to support that view.  The tolling bell reminding us that every person’s death diminishes us is itself a reminder that we are not as different as might like to think.  That is uncomfortable and difficult to face.

The memento mori, the reminder of our own mortality, is a moment to think on how we live now.  This makes it acceptable to assess the legacy of the one who has died and ask if it was a life to inspire or warn.  The passionate advocates on both sides will each pick a different answer.  There is nothing wrong with choosing your answer, but a little moderation of tone would not go amiss, even if you feel this is a moment of liberation.

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Your comments

Amen. Thank you! smile

#1. By Blair Baker on April 12, 2013

Thank you for this timely and thoughtful article.  I am someone whose career was ruined by the policies of Margaret Thatcher and my fortunes will probably never recover.  So my reaction to her death was, perhaps not joy exactly, but a quiet sense of relief. I admit to downloading the Witch is Dead, though!  However, since reading your article I have changed my viewpoint.  Where she has gone we shall all follow, so maybe it is better to allow God to be the judge of Thatcher.  Instead of demonising the departed I have decided to review the way I live now and channel my energies into more positive pursuits - maybe join a political party or help out at our local food bank.

#2. By Philomena Lewer on May 02, 2013

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