Thursday, 5 April 2012

Judging the Dead

People seem to be compelled to -upon the death of a family member, friend, co-worker, celebrity or acquaintance- make an almost instant, and irrevocable absolute value judgment on the virtue of the life and character of the deceased. Think about it; it’s rare to hear mixed reviews, so to speak, of the deceased at his own wake, or around town in the days following his death. It’s more likely that you’ll hear something like:

"He was such a good man." Photo by Simon Howden.
“It’s a shame that the old bugger died and all, but he really was a terrible fellow. He spanked his children and beat his wife.”

“You know, life dealt him some tough blows, but he was a really great guy with the best of intentions.”

I wonder if this tendency to make a summative value judgment of the life and character of the deceased is what is commonly known as closure. If that’s the case, then closure is about choosing to reduce a person, and a whole life down to a single notion of who, or what you choose to believe the deceased was – what he meant to you, what he meant to others, his actions, his omissions, his thoughts, beliefs and values, all boiled down to a definitive positive or negative judgment.

For a person who made a negative judgment of the deceased following his death, she almost definitely made that initial judgment based on her own unpleasant, negative, perhaps even violent, embarrassing or degrading experiences of him. While it’s possible that the deceased was “bad”, and at fault for these interactions, I wonder, with the judgment having been made so instantaneously following the death, if the judge may not have played some role in the negativity of these interactions with the deceased. But by affirming with herself the evil nature of the deceased, immediately following his death, the surviving judge has released herself of any guilt and responsibility for those negative interactions, regardless of the truth of the situation.

For a person who made a positive judgment of the deceased following his death, he almost definitely made that initial judgment based on his own pleasant, positive, perhaps even joyful, friendly or amorous experiences of the deceased. While it’s possible that everything was cupcakes and puppy dogs in the relationship between the sympathetic judge and the deceased, I wonder if, given the haste with which the judgment was made, if the sympathetic judge didn’t experience some negative interactions with the deceased that he doesn’t want to acknowledge. By making a summarily good judgment of the deceased, the sympathetic judge had alleviated himself of any guilt associated with any negative interactions between him and the deceased that may have occurred, and his possible responsibility for any such interactions.

I can’t really make any absolute and irrevocable value judgment of the practice of almost immediately branding the deceased a good or bad man following his death, and I’m probably not the most qualified judge in the case given that I have yet to experience any significantly profound loss in my own life. I am, however, interested in the affect that this practice has down the road. Think of any family member, family friend, or even famous person who died before you were born. With the exception of famous people (and the odd family member or friend) whose own wittings, audio or video recordings may be available to you, your notion of any one of these people is almost entirely based upon the value judgment made by those around you (your parents, relatives, etc.), who knew the deceased,. Ask anyone whose grandfather passed away either before their birth, or when they were very young, and I bet most of them have either a summarily positive notion of him as a hard-working and loving husband and father, or a completely negative notion of him as a hard-living, alcoholic, neglectful father, and abusive husband – either way, the judgment must have been perpetuated by those around them (i.e. their parents, etc.), since they barely, if ever even knew their grandfather.

I can recall the mythology of my grandfather when I was young. In fact, both of my grandfathers had very positive associations for both of my parents, so at a young age, these two invisible men who I had never, nor would I ever meet, often melded into one. In fact, I can recall, at a very young age, confusing the myth of my grandfather(s) with that of another invisible man who I had never, nor would I ever meet. I distinctly recall being confused as to whether it had been Jesus or Grandpa who had been nailed to the cross. Or maybe Jesus had nailed Grandpa to the cross? Or were they both crucified? I couldn’t figure it out, and I’m sure I lost a few nights of sleep over it.

With the complexities of living and dying, and then having a whole other life after death of which you have no control, but is determined only by the value judgments of your life made by others following your death, I think I’ll be a little more careful about how I life my life. And I’m thankful I only have to do it once!

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