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A Decent Custom

“It
is, I think, a decent custom which prescribes that we shall say nothing but
good about the dead.”

So
wrote Alistair Cooke, in April 1969, on the occasion of the death of President
Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Cooke’s
words came to mind when I read in the press that demonstrations are planned for
Margaret Thatcher’s funeral next week. 
Now I don’t entirely agree with Cooke, but his instincts are spot
on.  What he doesn’t mention is that
beyond saying nothing but good, or nothing but bad, there is a third option,
which is to say nothing at all.  Or at
least to say nothing until some appropriate interval has passed.       

Thatcher
was undoubtedly a controversial and divisive figure, possibly a destructive
one, and the media have not refrained from pointing it out.  This was only right, because journalists,
unlike the rest of us, have an obligation to fill their papers, or air time, not
just with information but also with informed opinion.  A death is no occasion to for not doing their
prescribed jobs.  They also have another
imperative, which is to report objectively, and by and large they have done so.

Thatcher’s
political adversaries are not objective. 
They are ardent in their belief that she was thoroughly bad for Britain, or at
least for their community, which is why many of them are so intent on celebrating
her passing.  But they should do so
quietly, if only because she was, to many others of different political
persuasions, a national hero. 

Those
who consider her divisive might also pause to ask themselves this question:
what could possibly be more divisive than disrupting her funeral – any
funeral.  They are speaking the language
and deploying the practices of the sectarian conflict in Ulster.   

Cooke
cites, in support of his injunction to refrain from speaking ill of the dead,
his refusal to write an obituary for Senator Joseph McCarthy.  “It seemed to me, while he was alive and when
he died also, that he had done irreparable harm to the reputation of the United States.  And the moment of his going was not the time
to say so.”  Thatcher, as her critics
insist, may have done irreparable harm to the United Kingdom, but the day of her
funeral, I submit, is not the time to say so.

The
dead are entitled to a dignified funeral. 
A brief moratorium on public utterances or demonstrations of contempt is
equally appropriate.  

There
is one simple and overwhelming reason why we should observe these customs: we
would wish for no less at the ceremonies marking our own final departure.

 

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