Reproach we may the living; not the dead:
‘Tis cowardice to bite the buried.
When NBC sportscaster Bob Costas was preparing his eulogy for Mickey Mantle’s funeral last year, he was faced with a formidable task: how to memorialize a friend, a hero, one of baseball’s greatest legends--whose personal life was fraught with problems.
“I felt that if I didn’t in some way acknowledge the complexity of his character--the flaws as well as the more appealing parts of him--then the appreciation would sound just like hero worship,” Costas recalled of his friend, an alcoholic who eventually achieved sobriety. “The facts of his life did not render untrue what was magnificent about him. If anything, they made it more poignant.”
So Costas spoke to Mantle’s magnificence as well as his darker side: “There was greatness in him, but vulnerability, too. . . . God knows no one is perfect. God also knows there’s something special about a hero.”
“Don’t speak ill of the dead” has been the pervasive philosophy guiding eulogies for hundreds of years.
Even if those being eulogized led less-than-perfect lives, in death the slate is miraculously wiped clean. Sinners become saints, transgressions are forgiven, and tarnished lives become sparkling clean.
But that attitude is changing, particularly when it comes to the deaths of public figures. Because of our media-intensive world, we know every excruciating detail about their crimes, legal wrangles, substance abuses and sexual escapades. When they die, hiding all that would be at the very least disingenuous, and at most a flat-out lie.
How then do you balance their lives in death? How do you remember a president who resigned from office after an epic scandal? A Cabinet member who was under investigation for his financial dealings? A Hollywood producer who achieved success despite a life of gargantuan excesses?
Don Simpson was that producer. With partner Jerry Bruckheimer, he brought to the screen such box office smashes as “Flashdance,” “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop.” He also lived an out-sized life of drug abuse, temper tantrums, hard partying and wild women--none of it secret. Even his extreme weight swings were chronicled.
His death in January of heart failure caused by a massive drug overdose at age 52 left friends and peers shocked--and having to memorialize the life of a man who was brilliant, yet supremely troubled.
“Don had a lot of demons and was self-destructive,” said his friend and agent Jim Wiatt of ICM at one memorial. “His rough exterior put a lot of people off. But he was a man of his word--a philosopher, a poet, an intellect. And he touched a lot of people. . . .”
Thinking back on his words now, Wiatt recalled, “I knew him well enough that I felt almost compelled to try and speak on his behalf, to try and articulate some of those demons, those highs and lows that he experienced. . . . I’m usually very careful about what I say, but when it comes to Don, I feel as if I wouldn’t be doing him the proper service by not describing him with spots and without spots. I feel sanguine about it. I don’t feel like I let him down as a friend.”
But movie exec Tova Laiter chose to remember the only side of her friend Simpson she knew--the brilliant man who was “forthright in a town where everyone walks on eggshells. . . . I wasn’t privy to the part of his life that was controversial, and therefore my memories of him were really of the good old days. Besides, funerals are not the time to say bad things about people. You want to send their soul the best blessing. Be tough on them in life, but once they’re gone, what’s the point?”
Our culture is deeply rooted in the belief that it’s simply not polite to speak negatively about the dead, explained Gerald Larue, emeritus professor of religion at USC.
“We tend to try to look on the bright side, the right side of what a person’s done and give meaning to that person’s life by emphasizing the positive aspects,” he said. “It’s an education in social ethics. . . . I think those people who know [the deceased] realize that their faults are there, and we forgive them their stupidities. . . . We tend to close our eyes once in a while when a person dies. It’s over, let’s get on with life.”
Such was the case at Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s funeral in April. He was eulogized in a series of memorials as a dynamic, gifted political leader and skilled negotiator. But references to a special prosecutor’s investigations of his financial affairs at the time of his death were never directly mentioned.
And at Richard Nixon’s well-attended 1994 funeral, the former president received a hero’s send-off. He was remembered largely as a great statesman and leader by everyone from the Rev. Billy Graham to President Clinton, the emphasis on his accomplishments rather than his stupendous fall from grace.
“There were pretty slight allusions [to the controversies in his life],” said David Sloane, associate professor in USC’s school of Urban Planning and Development. “This was not a man who was driven from office--that wasn’t the theme of the day.”
Clinton included one of those oblique references in his eulogy: “He made mistakes and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times.”
Perhaps the desire to keep remarks positive is strongest when our heroes pass away. Their eulogies are more than just highlights of a life lived, said Virginia Lynn Fry, director of the Hospice Council of Vermont and author of “Part of Me Died, Too " (Dutton, 1995).
“As a culture, when we’re grieving for a public figure, the question is more of what’s been lost. For someone like Mickey Mantle, his death is not just the death of an individual, but also pieces of our childhood, our belief that baseball is good in the face of reality.
“But I think it would be useful,” she said, “if we admit into eulogies pieces of the whole person, to say that as much as he was to us a symbol, he was also a human being with feelings as we all have. Even a statement as simple as that gives it balance, because otherwise the whole thing rings hollow.”
But as balanced as some public memorials have become, not all have fully evolved.
According to news accounts, Clinton’s eulogy of Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda contained no references to the Navy’s top officer’s suicide in May at age 57.
Said Clinton: “I know there is nothing we can say or do to ease the loss. Mike Boorda’s seat is empty. And how we will miss his warm smile and easy manner. What a legacy he has left behind.”
That omission speaks volumes, believes Marilyn E. Gootman, assistant professor of elementary education and author of “When a Friend Dies, a Book for Teens About Grieving and Healing” (Free Spirit Press, 1994).
“This person is eulogized as a saint when in my opinion he made a terrible mistake and chose a solution that I would not consider appropriate. . . . I think we have to openly acknowledge that it’s too bad the person didn’t see there could be a solution to his problems. If we can help people learn from that, maybe we can help another person. Maybe we can be empowered through this.”