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The Complicated Rules for Speaking Ill of the Dead

Larry Flynt pictured via Shutterstock

It can get ugly when people on social media stop being polite and start getting real.

Ever think about death? Of course you do. We all think about it from time to time. Sometimes it's a deep dread that keeps you awake late at night staring into the dark abyss, for others it's a feeling of peace that washes over you relieving you of the pains of this life.

Well, screw that Emily Dickinson crap. I leave the house on occasion. My dwelling on death came early in my life and left me not interested in contemplating it, 'cause it scared the crap out of me. I guess that's why I've always been a bit weird about the things that come with death. One of those is not speaking ill of the dead. I've never been a big fan of it, at least of the recently dead. I think it comes from having lingering pain from when my parents died when I was young and knowing that if I heard people speaking poorly of them, it would cause all sorts of anger and pain. That's why whenever a famous person dies, I'm reluctant to say bad things about them. Unless they were pretty fucking terrible people.

That's the problem with talking about the recently deceased. When good people pass, it's easy to eulogize them and celebrate their life, we don't even think much about it. It's easy. The few people who do badmouth them have some sort of grudge -- or are just miserable. It's when we get away from the truly great and nice people that we run into problems. But even the genuinely admired can be a problem.

When Kobe Bryant tied tragically in a helicopter crash, people rushed to eulogize the beloved basketball player, but when Felicia Sonmez, reporter with The Washington Post tweeted out a reminder that Kobe was under investigation at one point for sexual assault and settled with the accuser out of court, she got death threats and was suspended for her job. Yes, Kobe was a brilliant inspiration to many and supported women's sports, but he was also an accused rapist. Sonmez wasn't wrong in stating that, but she committed the faux pas of speaking ill of the well-liked dead. Kobe may have been beloved and inspiration, but he did have an affair with the girl who did accuse him of rape, and he admitted that. Now, you may not think of adultery as terrible as other actions, but it's enough to upset people, and credible allegations of sexual assault are pretty terrible. Yet, with Kobe, we mostly thought it was the wrong time and the wrong place.

"Terrible" is often subjective or even selective, e.g., when Hustler magazine owner Larry Flynt died and he got a few nice eulogies. People celebrated his lawsuit against televangelist Jerry Falwell, which was a major victory for the First Amendment. Yet, many overlooked his numerous allegations of sexual abuse, including molestation of his daughter. Also, his magazines were incredibly racist and homophobic. I mean, REALLY racist and homophobic. Additionally the images in them, as well in his expansion into pornographic movies, often included degrading images of women that simulated rape and abuse. Of course no one really wanted to talk about that because they would have to admit that they read the magazine, or that they actually found the images and bigotry acceptable. It's easier to remember him for taking on uptight religious conservatives than the fact that he was actually an incredibly toxic man. Between him and Hugh Heffner, Heffner took more abuse and criticism over his legacy, but was probably the better man. Both objectified women at times, but one was far worse than the other.

Then there are people like Rush Limbaugh. When Donald Trump hung a Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck, millions of Americans were horrified and disgusted. There was next to nothing redeemable about the man. He was racist to a degree rarely seen without a white hood over their head. The man called a young college student a slut because she wanted access to birth control. During the peak of the AIDS epidemic, he gladly reveled in the deaths of gay men who died of the disease. He mocked and attacked the poor, ramped up the toxicity of discourse that laid the foundation of Fox News and Trump, hated the poor, and considered crack addicts the lowest form of life on Earth. At the same time he spewed this bile, he was a lecherous junkie.

Folks may have forgotten, but he was busted with an illegal stash of Viagra and painkillers after flying back from an obvious sexual tourist trip to the Dominican Republic, where only God knows what he did. Limbaugh quantitatively and inarguably laid the foundation for the political climate of today that threatens to destroy our democracy, and he did it with a fat cigar in his mouth and a lot of hypocrisy.

Few people are as bad as Limbaugh in life, so it seems justifiable to not wait for the dirt on their grave to be filled in before the line to urinate on the headstone to start. While some people may consider Rush a great man, usually those people are also clearly terrible themselves. Rarely is there such a perfect example of a terrible person not worthy of memorializing, but instead wishing to exhume and desecrate the corpse in justifiably righteous outrage.

When one steps back from it all and really thinks about death, not just in a high school literature grade poem or in a churchly sermon, we start to see the complexity of the legacy of a life in their death. Few in this world ever can leave the physical plane not having left an embittered soul behind; I don't know but a small handful, and they all died tragically young. The rest of us can only expect that when we shuffle off this mortal coil, we did well enough to not become a public toilet. How that happens is all a matter of a moral spectrum we don't all share and of values we don't all hold.

In Egyptian mythology, when one died and descended into the afterlife, their hearts were weighed against a feather, with all of their sin and evil deeds weighing it down. If it balanced, you lived a good life and could proceed to the Field of Reeds and eternity. If it didn't, your soul got devoured by Ammit, a lion/crocodile/hippopotamus thing and ceased to exist. I'm sure many were rooting for the liocrocotamus. I guess we all do at some point, we just never think they're going to do it to us.

Amanda Kerri is an Oklahoma-based writer, comedian, and frequent contributor to The Advocate. Follow her on Twitter @Amanda_Kerri.

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