How Harsh Should You Be When a Bad Person Dies?

WASHINGTON - FEBRUARY 26:  Sen. Robert Byrd (D...
Robert Byrd, seen here on his way to steal the Building & Loan right out from under George Bailey

Dead people are always good people, it seems.  No matter how loutish or abrasive a person was in his lifetime, even his enemies feel compelled to praise him when he passes.

We want to try to find the good in everybody, but realistically we know that some people are just jerks, and jerks get called to their reward too.  So what do you say about people like that when you’re called on to say something?

The recent death of Senator Robert Byrd made me think about this.  Your opinion on the matter might depend on where you fall politically, but I think it’s safe to say that Byrd was, at best, a complicated man.  A former Klansman who spent his time in Congress (more time than any other Senator ever served) building monuments to himself at taxpayer expense, he’s not the example of sweetness and light that I would hold up for my own kids.

But he had a funeral, and like all powerful men, he had praise lavished upon him there.  It seemed like the speakers were having to work much harder than they normally do at occasions like this, though.  Byrd was bad in ways that can’t just be brushed over–he was blatantly, crassly bad if you just consider his opinions on race, never mind his political avarice.  And that’s just from the parts we know about.

So Byrd was the kind of guy about whom you couldn’t just stand up and say, “What a great guy!” at his funeral without sounding like a fool.  What’s the right thing to say about a person like this?

I think we hesitate to make judgmental statements about the dead because 1) what’s the point? and 2) we realize on a certain level that their judgment is fully in God’s hands now, so anything we say is kind of treading on God’s territory.  (For someone like Byrd, “what’s the point?” is a more significant question, because it matters how our leaders are portrayed in the history books.  Not so much so for your crazy Uncle Doug who always hugged you a little too long.)  So, to keep ourselves humble and for the sake of the people who loved the jerks in question, we hold back on our opinions.

But even in the case of the dead, the truth is important and should play at least a part in the proceedings. Everyone’s life is a lesson, and if we don’t have the truth about a person’s life we’ll learn the wrong lesson from it.  It’s not the time for vengeance or score-settling–if you thought that the deceased needed a piece of your mind, you should’ve had the guts to handle that while he was alive. But if you can speak the truth in love (and love doesn’t preclude us from pointing out a jackass when we see one), death doesn’t nullify the truth; it’s still  worth sharing.

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