Image: A single narcissus blossom (Fauren/Shutterstock)
Columnist Frank Bruni wrote a great opinion piece for the New York Times, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.” He makes the point that Americans have developed the habit of making the death of public figures an opportunity to talk about themselves. The President does it, other public figures do it, and reporters do it, and it’s a bad habit all around. I recommend you click on the link and read the piece; it’s good.
Many of us don’t fully appreciate what we’re doing, and that’s a damned good reason, among plenty of others, to pay closer attention to it. It undermines what should be our goal, which is to put someone else in the spotlight. We can’t do that if we’re crowding the stage. – Frank Bruni, “Death in the Age of Narcissism.”
Agreed, but I have a minor disagreement with his thinking. Obituaries and eulogies are not for the dead; the dead cannot hear them. Public speech after a death speaks to the public, and to the mourners.
This is one reason that speaking of the dead immediately after death, the rule “if you can’t say something good, say as little as possible” applies. The dead leave behind living people who are in pain. Jewish tradition is so firm on this subject that we are taught to say, “Blessed is the true Judge” when we first hear of a death, any death. That provides a moment to restrain any wild impulse to say something cruel or ignorant. In a Jewish eulogy, the hesped, rabbis are taught to tell the truth but to put it gently.
“But what if it is true?” I hear someone asking. “What if Dead Person was a terrible person and there are victims?” That’s another topic – one I would like to address separately soon. At this point, I will still say that it is very thin ice and I still believe the less said in public about the flaws of the dead while the grave is fresh, the better. Immediately after a death, there are mourners, and they must be treated with kindness.
Mourning is a time of terrible vulnerability. The spirit reels with loss; it is in no position to process unkindness, however truthful. Just as we know we will all die someday, it is also true that at some time in our lives, we will be mourners. Hillel’s dictum, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person” suggests that we should extend to mourners the kindness we ourselves want at such a time.
Mr Bruni is correct, up to a point. The goal of speech about the recently dead is to shed light upon their lives, but one may never forget that just outside that spotlight stands the widow and the orphan. Whatever the dead did will remain for discussion at another time; funerals are for the mourners.
3 thoughts on “Speaking of the Dead”
i appreciate the link and your words, Rabbi Adar. I think it is good to find something positive to recall as that is what we would want for our loved ones to hear about us when we’re gone. As you indicate, what we remember and share about another tells a lot about us 😉
Thank you for this timely piece. I read the Bruno essay before you posted it, and while I liked it, I had the same reservations you did. Sadly, I am not a newcomer to this kind of thing. As a public speaker, I have been chosen a number of times to eulogize family members and friends who have passed, as recently as last year, and for some reason, although I am not Jewish, I am most at ease during a Jewish funeral surrounded by my Jewish friends! It is not hard for me to emphasize the finer qualities of the departed—most decent people have some finer qualities worthy of celebration.
As always, Rabbi, you just tell us what should be sound to all of us. Kindness should be a prerequisite…
Really thank you,