How the concept of “don’t speak ill of the dead” is typically utilized is fraught with dismissal and erasure. Every time someone problematic dies, it is nearly inevitable to hear statements of “don’t speak ill of the dead,” but who does that idea serve? What benefit does it have? Certainly, if we want to learn from the past and honor those who have been harmed by people now deceased, we must speak honestly of the dead, even if being honest means speaking ill.
When Not to Speak Ill of the Dead
It can be argued that nothing is entirely good or bad, but instead is a mixture of benefits and drawbacks. So, even though I generally hate the demand to not speak ill of the dead, it does at times and under certain circumstances, have its place. One such time can be when you are specifically addressing those newly bereaving the dead. Generally, they deserve to have the opportunity to begin the grieving process without being beaten over the head with the mistakes, missteps, and ill deeds of their loved ones.
As someone who has never met, for example, Rush Limbaugh, it would be deplorably rude of me to seek out his funeral, show up, and demand that all in attendance listen to a litany of his ill deeds. It is not my place, and that is not the time.
I am, however, free to speak out in public or online. I am not addressing his loved ones directly or intervening in their grieving processes. Also, I have every right to demand that his harm be remembered, and point out that his life should not be celebrated, since he was such a deplorably awful person that his entire legacy is one of hatred, cruelty, and prejudice. No one is entirely good or bad, but he did a very deliberate job of making his life as much about being as awful as possible without personally committing genocide.
At some point, however, loved ones who would rather focus on the good things do need to face those uncomfortable or ugly truths, or they are culpable in perpetuating the harm done by the individual who has died. They can honor the grieving process, and their dead as well, while still retaining honesty about any shortcomings. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Ides of Dismissal
By the same token, if any of Limbaugh’s relatives and loved ones who take issue with how he conducted his life are compelled to attend his funeral, and expected to speak, they have every right to air whatever dirty laundry they wish to. That IS their space, because it is personal for them, and it would be cruel to expect them to ignore their pain or lie about the dead just so others can be comforted by sanitized platitudes. Maybe they will have nice things to say as well, or maybe they will feel like they can focus on nice things and leave the rest for later, but that is entirely up to them.
I do not expect to attend the funerals of any of my immediate family members, mostly because I have little to say about them that is nice, and I do not expect to do much grieving upon their deaths. I already have spent a lot of time grieving the fact that they were not the family I deserved or the family they superficially pretended to be. I do not believe I belong at their funerals because they are not my loved ones, and they proved over the course of my entire life that I am not among their loved ones either.
If for some reason I were to attend their funerals, expecting me to lie and shower them with praise would be disrespectful to me. The core of their problematic behavior involved lies, dismissal, obfuscation, gaslighting, and denial, so expecting me to partake of further such behavior to make them artificially look “good” would be a continuation of the abuses of my family. It would be cruel and ridiculous to expect me to ignore or dismiss any of the problematic history between us, at any time, no matter the reason, and there is absolutely nothing good I can say about any of them that is not tainted with or overwhelmed by bad things. Speaking honestly of my immediate blood family inherently involves “speaking ill.”
This dynamic of honesty at funerals is especially important when a funeral is framed as being for the living. Many funerals are framed as existing to help see the dead on to the afterlife. Others are framed to help the living with the grieving process so they can find closure and peace with what has been lost. Sometimes a funeral will have multiple distinct parts, with some of it focused on the dead, and other parts focused on the grief of the living.
“Don’t speak ill of the dead,” is usually framed as necessary for those experiencing grief, so they can focus on the good things when they are newly grieving. However, sometimes those grieving need to “speak ill” in order address their grief and find closure.
How many movies and television shows have you seen where the protagonist has a troubled relationship with someone who dies, and at the funeral speaks the truth about ugly things? The trope usually shows the audience in shock, some crocodile tears from enablers, and maybe a few smiles from fellow victims. The protagonist is framed as being fully justified, because as the audience we understand that doing or saying anything else would be to deny or dismiss the trauma and pain we have walked through with that protagonist. It becomes a powerful moment of affirmation, of the protagonist reclaiming their agency and personal power, and we celebrate that victory with them even though it happens at an “inappropriate” time according to conventions that include “don’t speak ill of the dead.”
Is it better to be the fellow victim quietly witnessing, or the protagonist who speaks up and tells the truth at the funeral? It is impossible to determine in generalities which of the two we should each be, because every situation and every person and every relationship dynamic is different. But, if you are speaking ugly truths at a funeral, it had better be personal, or you likely have no business being there in the first place.
Human history is littered with the bad deeds of countless individuals. I would even go so far as to say that the majority of pivotal events in history can be attributed to one or more individuals who decided to behave very badly. Even individuals we should be celebrating, like Harriet Tubman and Sugihara Chiune, did what they did in response to the horrible deeds of others around them.
If we ignore the bad deeds and the people who committed them, we also erase the good deeds and good people who existed at the same time. We end up in revisionist history, like when we pretend that black people in the United States were happy being slaves (for clarity, no, they were not) and were treated well by their owners (again, they were not, for enslavement is abusive even when it is packaged nicely). We also ignore the very real agency that black people had in fighting for their own freedom.
And no, this kind of revision of history is not a problem just in some isolated or “backward” places. That was the revisionist version of history I was taught in public school in in a liberal region of California, that the slaves were treated well, mostly content with their lives, and granted freedom through the generosity and enlightenment of white men, rather than through decades of hard work, persecution, and deaths, fighting for their own recognition and respect. Certain individuals, like Harriet Tubman, and events like blacks fighting for the North in the Civil War, were mentioned like exceptional footnotes, like they were the rare gems while the rest of their people wallowed and were unconcerned about changing their lot in life.
In this revisionist history, we do talk about the bad deeds of some, because we must in order to acknowledge that the Civil War happened at all. But we are picky about it. We focus on those bad deeds which highlight the achievements of those who we most want to celebrate (Lincoln, for one), but we ignore most of the bad deeds that contributed. The Civil War gets framed as an issue of state’s rights instead of human rights, while ignoring that senators were unseated for engaging in seditious activities. Southern generals and politicians are framed as defenders of their home and way of life, rather than acknowledging the cruelty and harm they inflicted upon so very many human beings. We ignore the fact that they were willing to send hundreds of thousands of people to die in a war so they could continue to be cruel to a different group of humans.
In ignoring and erasing those cruelties, we ended up with a warped and revised version of history, where various people (mostly white) insist that black people have nothing to complain about. Some even go so far as to claim that the truth about history is the lie, and that structural violence and social inequities experienced overwhelmingly by people of color are a result of their own inadequacies, instead of a result of the bad deeds of so very many racists we are not supposed to “speak ill of.”
It is not a stretch to say that revisionist history of the Civil War and civil rights in general is bolstered by the kind of mentality that calls for “don’t speak ill of the dead.” In order to understand the truth, we must be honest about what ill deeds the dead committed while they were alive, all of it. We cannot cherry-pick for the parts we find palatable and throw the rest out like it never existed. Doing so prevents us from understanding and fixing the problems we have inherited from those same forebears.
Most people leave behind a legacy, even if that legacy is just the love and sorrow they leave behind with those who knew them best. Other people leave behind a legacy that impacts individuals and society far beyond those who personally knew them. This is the case with artists, politicians, freedom fighters, writers, leaders of all stripes, and so many more. What they said and did in their lives will live on in those who study their legacies, follow in their footsteps, and watch, read, or listen to the media they left behind.
Just like with individuals like Aleister Crowley, Malcolm X, Gerald Gardner, and H.P. Lovecraft, Rush Limbaugh leaves behind a lasting legacy of media that reflects everything that was both good and problematic about him. That media will continue to be read, listened to, and watched in various forms, creating lasting impact far beyond the grave.
When we ignore the ugly parts of their legacies, we ignore the impact not just on the past, but also on the present. If we do not acknowledge the ugliness, we do not have a prayer of separating the art from the artist and picking out what pieces may still have value or illuminate the events of the past.
When we demand that the ugly parts be ignored or buried, even if it is so we do not “speak ill of the dead,” we also demand that we ignore the impact of that ugliness on very real people. We erase their very real trauma and suffered harm, and deny them a voice to demand justice so they can have peace. This is true whether you are talking about the general awfulness of Crowley, the white supremacy of Lovecraft, or the arguably legally necessary bigotry of Gardner (homosexuality was still illegal in England until 1967, and witchcraft was barely legal as of 1951, so emphasizing heterosexual symbolism may have been necessary to avoid being arrested for encouraging homosexuality).
In glossing or refusing to discuss the ugly things, you also deny any chance to clarify reputations that may be factually inaccurate, like the perception of Malcolm X as a hostile person.
“Speaking Ill” is a Sometimes a Matter of Perspective and Tone
In the case of Limbaugh, his entire legacy is built on prejudice, hostility, and hate. Throughout his life, he used his platform to ridicule, demean, and undermine anyone and everyone who was not an able-bodied, straight, cis gendered, Christian, white male. He created a great deal of harm for countless people, both directly and indirectly, and because of his legacy he will continue to do so from beyond the grave for a great many years to come.
As a rabid white supremacist, those are things he was unashamed of, even undeniably proud of. Those are things which those who admired him found the most admirable about him. There are a staggering number of people who see those deplorable words and perspectives as the bastion of what they believe is right and good in the world, and they will continue to speak proudly about him and those things because of it.
And yet, we, the targets of his hate, are told not to “speak ill” when we point out the harm he did, harm he was proud of, harm his admirers are also proud of. They have no desire to erase those words and deeds, or the impact on his victims. In demanding that we not “speak ill”, they instead wish to deny us a voice. They want us to shut up because we see it as ill deeds, and they only want it mentioned in celebratory ways.
They are tone policing as a way of denying, not his actions, but that what he did was wrong.
You see the same thing in people who ignore the ills and long-term problems caused by the legacies of Crowley, Gardner, and Lovecraft. Regardless of whether or not Gardner was personally a bigot (a question I honestly do not have the answer to), the structures he created are used in the present day to justify bigotry, transphobia, and gender essentialism. Those who celebrate those structures and use them to justify their personal bigotry do not believe what he did was wrong. They do not see it as “speaking ill” when they praise what he did. Yet, when those who criticize him talk about those same things, they tell us not to “speak ill,” because our words lack praising tones. In doing so they seek to deny any admission that it was wrong, because then they might be held accountable for their own bigotry that they justify with his legacy.
Gender essentialism in paganism and witchcraft is a larger issue than just with Gardnerian Wicca, but Gardner with his legacy is an easy target for illustrating this point. I mention him here because most people in pagan, witchy, and pagan-tangential practices are at least passingly aware of those issues and the fact that many people are working to adapt Wicca so it is more inclusive. Also, Gardner is deceased, unlike Z Budapest, who I would frankly much rather have picked on here due to her blatant and proudly deliberate transphobia.
Honoring the Living
Part of the idea of not speaking ill of the dead is to honor the living and their memories of the dead. The idea is that eventually we can speak the truth, but we should wait until later. But, who decides when it is “later” enough? If we let the truth be buried for too long, the falsely nice narratives become entrenched, supporting efforts at erasure and revisionist history. If we let the truth be buried for even a short amount of time, there are those who will cling to those false narratives as the only valid narrative, because if you let it stand at one point, why not let it stand longer?
“Too soon” is the dismissal of those who do not want to acknowledge harm that has happened or is happening. They want to keep the truth buried, and bury those who have been harmed along with it. We see this after every school shooting or domestic terrorist action in the USA. It is a form of gaslighting that blames the victims for pointing out when wrongs have been committed, and prevents them from effectively creating changes that could keep those things from happening again.
Putting off telling the truth may provide comfort to a small number of individuals, but that is a minor positive impact. The greater negative impact is in dismissing harm and refusing to honor the impact of that harm on people both living and dead. When we refuse to “speak ill,” it exclusively centers a sterilized view of that one deceased person, and we are forced to ignore and erase truths which honor other people, both living and dead. We inadvertently “speak ill” of them when do not allow their truths to be heard and their harms to see justice. When we deny that harm was done, we deny that harm validity and we add to the harm already inflicted by those now dead.
“Don’t speak ill of the dead” is a phrase that serves the oppressor and the bully, and piles further harm on the victims. It almost always comes out to play when we speak up and demand that the truth be told so that history can hold the guilty accountable for their words and deeds. It is used to defend the “memory” of those who avoided the truth and accountability while still alive, so that in death they and their enablers may continue to avoid truth and accountability. You do not usually hear people say “don’t speak ill of the dead” when referring to those who lived their lives honestly, because the truth is not something that will “harm” them or their legacy.
Honor the Dead by Speaking the Truth
Even those of us who are not deliberately awful (like Limbaugh, Crowley, and Lovecraft), we all make mistakes. No one is perfect! We all do and say things that are problematic, despite the best of intentions, and a lot of the time we do not realize it. Sometimes those problematic things are not widely identified until well after our deaths. Other times culture shifts and words evolve, so what was at one time an inclusive term can become problematic or even a slur, leading to media that in some ways becomes problematic over time. Yet, all those things are part of our truth and our legacy, problems and all.
To deny those truths is to dishonor and erase part of our lives, and the impact it had and continues to have on living people. Sanitizing history, including personal legacies, prevents us from understanding where we came from, how to prevent bad things from happening again, and why we can and should do better in the future. It hobbles efforts at social change, and ignores the root causes of inequities so that it is harder to fix the foundations of our culture, government, and society.
When I die, I hope that people will have a lot of good things to say about me, but I know there will also be criticisms. That is natural, and as it should be. Speak your truth about me and how my words and deeds impact(ed) you, for in doing so you not only honor yourself, but you honor the whole of who I am and what I did. I want my legacy to include the ability to acknowledge growth and increased understanding of how the things we do and say impact those around us, especially if that growth and understanding goes beyond what I achieve in this life.
In the case of Rush Limbaugh and others like him who proudly build their legacy out of deliberate cruelty, you can polish that turd as much as you like, but it is still a turd. His legacy is built on prejudice of every possible kind. It was what he celebrated in his life, and it is what he will be celebrated for now that he is dead. Honor his legacy by being honest about his deeds and the impact they had. It is what he wanted in life, and he should receive that in death. It is, after all, a legacy of his own deliberate creation.