In death, it seems that people become saintly, with reputations for perfection that quickly calcify around them. In the hours and days following their last breaths, they’re turned into airbrushed, hyperreal yet also fictional versions of themselves in the workrooms of funeral homes, but also in the imagination. Instead of acknowledging people as they are, the dead are propped up on pedestals and there they remain — ‘don’t speak ill of the dead,’ they say. ‘Don’t insult their memory,’ they follow. To be dead is to be frozen in time not just in the sense that you are no longer alive, will no longer participate in society and age and interact, but also in the sense that your legacy will be erased.
Because no one is perfect, and your bad parts are part of your legacy too, even when this causes discomfort and unease. Humanity almost revels in its imperfections, and it is these sometimes that lead to our greatest acts. It is the knowledge that we can do better, that we must do better, that drives us. It is our desire to seek out the best parts of ourselves that builds our legacies in the first place, and that desire is often derived from the harms we’ve done, not just the things we’ve seen and the people we’ve interacted with. So many stories are about redemption, but redemption from what? Some sanitised, quick version of a shady past followed by a sunshines and rainbows version of the present?
All too often I find myself attending funerals, memorials, celebration of life ceremonies, whatever we’re calling them, and wanting to gag on what people are saying. Person after person gets up to testify to the perfection of the deceased and everyone nods and alternately sniffles or smiles, caught in a shared moment. No one gets up to talk about the ugly and unpleasant sides of the deceased, because that isn’t nice. No one gets up to point out that the deceased was a human like everyone else.
Is there a way to eulogise without lionising? Without turning the dead into perfect caricatures rather than human beings? Some might argue that the place to talk about complexities and flaws is probably not at the funeral, with the dead tucked away in a coffin at the head of the room (or, as is more common, at a memorial, where the dead are nowhere to be seen). These ceremonies are for the family, for the community, for us all to maintain a fiction of the dead.
I find this troubling. Being dead doesn’t magically erase the past, and honouring a legacy requires honestly engaging with it. If we don’t do it at the very ceremony intended to commemorate a life, when are we supposed to do it? And how are we supposed to fight the narrative of perfection and can-do-no-wrong that often quickly arises around the decedent, becoming impossible to tear down once established because this is the way of the world, that the dead should never be held accountable for their actions and who they are.
I want people to talk about my less pleasant traits at my funeral. Those are a part of me too. I want people to talk about how I learned from some of them, and retained others until the moment of my death, because those traits are a part of me just as much as anything else is. Maybe it makes people uncomfortable to think of being frank at a memorial, but it shouldn’t. It’s reasonable to admit, to even openly state, that a decedent wasn’t always the greatest person ever.
Usually when people do acknowledge these facts, it’s in the form of light, glancing stories that turn such traits into something cute rather than something more serious and integral. It’s not cute that I’m impatient and hard-headed — if someone were to tell a sweet story about it, I’d be rolling in my grave, or at least gritting my teeth in my urn. These traits are part of who I am, and they inform my personality, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that and pointing out that for whatever I may have accomplished and for all my other positive traits, these, too, were facts.
Erasing the details of the lives of the dead turns them into one-dimensional figures with no personalities. There is no good without bad, no sense of balance if there is nothing on the other side of the scales. When I hear the dead painted as angels, I grow deeply suspicious about what is being hidden. When people are honest, I am much more inclined to believe them when they talk about the good traits of the dead, about the amazing things those people did.
Some dead people were assholes in life, and it’s okay to admit that. Maybe you don’t want to use that exact phrasing at a memorial — or bother showing up at all — but you don’t need to pretend and make nice just so people will feel better around you. There’s nothing wrong with knowing, and saying, that someone was sometimes cruel, or hateful — that someone was abusive and unpleasant, abrasive and mean, with few redeeming traits. It’s all right to acknowledge this, and to say at the same time that this person was a fantastic artist or brilliant writer.
We can say that Hunter S. Thompson was a royal asshole, which he was, on all accounts, and still think his work was great. In fact, it’s his very assholery that informs every aspect of his work, and makes his legacy all the more important. Even raging assholes, it turns out, can contribute to society, and we should be able to say that at their funerals.
Photo: Coffin ship detail, theilr, Flickr