C.J. Marshall: Significa: We despise the living, yet venerate the dead
Many years ago, one of the first episodes I saw of "All in the Family" concerned Archie Bunker having to deal with fact that his cousin Oscar had died while visiting his residence.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, the episode in question underscored a very interesting point - that we as a society have a terrible hypocrisy concerning death; or more specifically, the dead.
If you'll recall, Oscar was a ne'er-do-well relative of Archie's who basically mooched off of family members by moving from residence to residence until he wore out his welcome. He was never seen in the episode, only referred to by Archie, who was constantly grousing, wondering why he was putting up with Oscar, complaining that he'd never liked him while growing up, and he didn't like him now.
Eventually, it was discovered that cousin Oscar had died upstairs in bed. Because Oscar was his closest relative, Archie was left with the unpleasant task of providing a funeral and having him buried.
The remainder of the episode is filled with various jabs at how we treat people when they're dead, as opposed to when they're alive. Relatives are calling the Bunker household expressing condolences, even though it was evident from Archie's comments that they didn't care for Oscar any more than he did. In one particularly hilarious moment, a woman shows up at the door, sobbing hysterically "Oh, Archie, oh Archie!" over and over again. Archie listens for several seconds with a puzzled expression on his face, then asks "Who the hell are you?" It turns out the woman was a distant relative.
Finally, Archie discovers a solution to his liking. Instead of having to hold a funeral and pay for burying Oscar, the state will handle the expense of disposing of the body by putting it pauper's grave. Archie is on the verge of announcing this to family members, but stops short when he realizes that everyone is going to think him a louse for doing such a thing. He relents and agrees to a quick ceremony, telling funeral director "pick out the cheapest thing you got."
Much of the humor of this episode came from the fact that - as I pointed out earlier - our society is often very hypocritical concerning our treatment of the dead. There's been a number of times while grousing about a person I don't like, I'll be chided by someone who says "Oh you shouldn't say that, he's dead." At that point I usually ask, "Well what difference does it make? I didn't like him when he was alive, I'm not going to like him any better now that he's dead."
Those who press the argument come back with "He's not here to defend himself." To which I come back with "We usually talk about people we don't like behind they're backs, when they're not here to defend themselves. Again, what difference does it make?" The conversation usually ends with "Well, you shouldn't speak ill of the dead."
This philosophy was most glaringly demonstrated on the day that Richard Nixon died. As is true every time an ex-president dies, the papers were full of obituaries and stories, extolling the virtues of the former chief executive, and lamenting the passing of a great leader. As I was reading all this, a cynical thought kept on running through my head. "Did the right Richard Nixon die?" No where in all those stories was there any mention of Watergate, or Nixon's resigning his office in disgrace. Each one delicately spoke of Nixon's accomplishments, but left out all the bad parts, simply because of the stigma we associate with speaking ill of the dead.
Of course, ours is not the only culture which seems to disdain the living but venerate the dead. I recall reading a news story during the Iraq war, in which opposition forces were given strict instructions not to abuse the corpses of American soldiers. While I can appreciate them not doing that, it struck me that those same enemy soldiers would probably heap all kinds of abuse on living U.S. forces who unfortunately fell into their hands, but let the enemy turn into a corpse, and it suddenly must be treated with the utmost respect.
Historically, this has been practiced by many cultures down through the ages. It was often thought that the souls of those who did not receive a proper funeral and burial would be forced to wander across the earth through eternity as disembodied spirits. Because this was considered a terrible fate, it became common practice for armies to perform the proper burials for all soldiers, even enemy ones.
But I emphasize here that the process of dying and its customs are not all hypocrisy. There are a number of funerals I've attended to pay respect to friends and family, and to say "goodbye" to loved ones. Such events have allowed closure, and to share good memories and provide mutual moral support in a time of loss. However, I'm certain many of us have also attended funerals of people we don't like or respect - and in some cases even hated - just because it's considered the "proper" thing to do. How many times have you attended a funeral in which you spotted a relative of the deceased bawling their eyes out - and you know said relative despised that person when they were alive and made no bones about it? When I see such things I find it both amusing and very sad, because it so neatly underscores the fact - in many cases - a person has to die before he really becomes appreciated.