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Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Monday, 27 July 2009 12:33 UK

When can you speak ill of the dead?

Michael Jackson's memorial

By Tom de Castella

It's a month since the death of Michael Jackson - an event which triggered much worshipful coverage of the singer's life. Has enough time passed for a more impartial assessment of the man?

When Michael Jackson died the global media cleared the decks for the King of Pop. But not everyone was reading the script.

"This guy was a pervert," said Peter King, Republican state congressman for New York. "He was a child molester, he was a paedophile, and to be giving this much coverage to him day in and day out, what does it say about us as a country?"

It's a hostage to fortune to say nice things when someone dies. And reacting to Jackson's one was particularly tricky
Sam Leith

The British satirical magazine Private Eye summarised the media's U-turn on Jackson thus: "What you didn't read in all the newspapers: 'Mad Paedophile Dead: Yesterday a 50 year-old mentally ill paedophile died in America.'"

Our traditional response to a person's death can be summed up by the Latin "de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est" - roughly translated "don't speak ill of the dead". But in the information age, where the news keeps on rolling and the notion of deference has long since been replaced by a fascination with fame, how does the old maxim hold up?

A person's death is an opportunity for onlookers to sound magnanimous, sensitive and profound. But also stupid.

When the controversial publisher Robert Maxwell drowned in 1991, the then prime minister, John Major, praised him as a "great character" who had given him "valuable advice".

Maxwell was widely suspected of being a crook and a bully. So when, not long later, it emerged he had stolen hundreds of millions of pounds from the Daily Mirror pension fund, Major's praise looked foolish rather than gracious.

Recently it has become fashionable for politicians to pay tribute to any number of celebrity victims.

Risky talk

Princess Diana's remains the defining celebrity death that set the tone for what was to come. As the feminist commentator Joan Smith put it 10 years after the event: "I came across many people who felt as I did: shocked by the sudden death of a well-known person, especially in such absurd and avoidable circumstances, but not personally involved."

Jade Goody
When Jade Goody (above) died in March, TV presenter Sir Michael Parkinson said she came to represent 'all that's paltry and wretched about Britain'
He was criticised for his forthright comments
Bishop Jonathan Blake, who presided over Goody's wedding, criticised Sir Michael for 'putting the boot in to a young woman so recently buried'

But to speak out against the tide of grief was risky. "We were immediately perceived to be on 'the other side' - deficient in compassion, sympathy, empathy, whatever you want to call it."

The death of Michael Jackson brings up many parallels. The funeral was moving for his fans but contained moments of extreme irony: "Ever since I was born, daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine," declared Paris Katherine Jackson.

Families are entitled to such pronouncements but these days wise commentators take a nuanced view of someone's death, says the columnist Sam Leith.

"It's a hostage to fortune to say nice things when someone dies. And reacting to this one was particularly tricky. For a long time he's been Wacko Jacko. So he wasn't someone who was unequivocally lauded."

While Jackson was never convicted of child abuse - and was once acquitted - a finger of suspicion continued to hang over him.

Residing in the stars

President Obama's spokesman chose to balance the "spectacular performer" with the private individual whose life had many "sad and tragic" elements. And yet more desperate individuals began losing their heads with the most "egregious self publicising" from celebrities like Uri Geller and Brooke Shields who hadn't seen Jackson for years, says Leith.

We obituarists do argue amongst ourselves - should you out someone's sexuality or mention that they may have committed suicide, for instance?
Bob Chaundy

And of course the politicians joined in. "A young man has left Earth, but now resides in the stars," said Diane Watson, the Democratic representative from California. Meanwhile in the Mother of Parliaments, Labour MP Keith Vaz tabled the following Early Day Motion: "That this House celebrates the life and music of Michael Jackson; commends the role his music has played… notes that he sold an estimated 750 million records worldwide and won 13 Grammy awards… and hopes that his legacy will endure."

Leith believes politicians like Vaz make a "category error" when they posture in this way. "They appropriate cultural events. You wouldn't really expect Michael Jackson to ratify the Countryside Act 2000 so why should parliament say what a jolly good dancer he was?"

Dr Johnson famously remarked: "In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath" - in other words, feel free to embroider a bit when paying tribute to a man's life. But Bob Chaundy, former obituaries editor at BBC News says the days of the slavishly affectionate portrait no longer apply.

"You try to create as true and full account of that person's life as you can. So with Michael Jackson you couldn't just talk about the music - you had to mention the allegations of paedophilia. This is obituary, not hagiography."

Miserable, judgemental

But an obituary needs to tell a story first and foremost. "You can't ignore the fact that he sold more records than any other artist. If he was just a child molester we wouldn't be writing about him."

However, the boundaries of what can and can't be said are not always clear cut.

Walter Cronkite
Walter Cronkite: an obituary in the Guardian last week pulled no punches

"We obituarists do argue amongst ourselves - should you out someone's sexuality or mention that they may have committed suicide, for instance?"

The Reverend Tim Sledge, a vicar in Romsey, Hampshire, believes society has a confused reaction to death: "The media portrayal of a life has almost become like an autopsy."

Sledge conducts 100 funeral services a year and says his primary task is to help people come to terms with their loss.

"One of the ways to do that is to look back at a person's life and celebrate it. You need to steer a careful course, deal with it honestly but don't obsess about the bad parts or it becomes a cesspit."

He admits there have been times, researching funeral subjects, when it seems nobody has a good word to say about the deceased.

"With one chap wherever I turned, people said he was miserable, judgemental, anti-social. I thought, 'My goodness, what can I say?'

"So I started his tribute with: 'Let's be honest, he could be a pretty cantankerous so-and-so.' And you could feel this palpable sense of relief spread around the church as people realised I wasn't just going through the motions."

Honesty is crucial then, but he warns against concentrating on someone's flaws:

"I think we've made a national sport of pointing out people's faults. The purpose of a funeral is not to be critical. It needs to be a balance of honesty and generosity."

Below is a selection of your comments.

I have never subscribed to the belief that death automatically confers sainthood. If a person was obnoxious in life, death did not change that. It is the ultimate hypocrisy to suddenly gush over how wonderful a person was when you couldn't tolerate them in life and, thinking about my own delightful family, usually means you have one eye on their will. Tact and diplomacy may be needed to spare the feelings of family, but a mouth kept firmly shut is probably the best policy although I concede that this could be difficult if it is a celebrity and the rest of the media are jumping on the ratings bandwagon.
Christina, Parkstone

I agree with the Rev Sledge. It is too easy to pick someone's life apart. We still suffer from this good guy/bad guy Hollywood syndrome whereas the truth is that we all have things we're ashamed of and all have redeeming qualities. Most of us would like to have some of our redeeming qualities remembered after our death, not just our failures.
James Hodson, Montgenevre, France

While they are alive, they have the opportunity to refute allegations, sue for slander or even change their lifestyle. Once someone is dead, they are defenceless so attacking them is seen as cowardly.
Mark Lambert, Mildenhall, England

A funeral is for the survivors: plain and simple. Those children of Michael Jackson are the ones who will need all the love and support of their community. Who are we to take something, twist it around, and come up with something that doesn't match their perceptions of their father. The same goes with ANY child who loses a parent, no matter what age. If we cannot allow for the POSSIBILITY of good as well as the bad to be involved in a person's life, then WHY are we being one-sided? Life is not made up of "black and white" aspects, but rather a multitude of colours. It is up to each of us to make up our own mind what colours a person's life's actions are composed.
Darlene Forsman, Portland, OR, US

Michael Jackson was found NOT GUILTY yet everyone has an opinion on whether this takes away from his musical legacy. He is and will always be bigger than Elvis and the Beatles combined. Can you not let the poor guy rest in peace? The fact that the British even think is OK to talk ill of the dead says more about the UK and the British people. What is left to celebrate of the UK when we put down the dead?
Grako, Leicester

If we're going to judge someone, forget popularity and glitter, ask; Did they make the world better? Did they genuinely improve another person? Did they perform any genuinely altruistic benevolent act? Did they accumulate wealth and fame for the benefit of others? If the answer to any of the above is yes, then they have done something worth mentioning. Otherwise stop bothering me about them.
Andy Wilcock, Tunbridge Wells

Throughout human history, people have eulogized the dead. In fact, I know no culture that has no eulogy. In many cultures, it is believed that saying good things about the dead helps the spirit to depart in peace and into a resting place, otherwise it roams about, meaning it becomes a restless ghost. There is nothing wrong in saying good thing about the dead as long as it is truthful. The hash truth is always left to history and historians. Everyone should remember that fact whether we are talking about Michael Jackson, Elvis, George Washington, John Kennedy, Jade Goody, Walter Cronkite, or General Patton.
Bode Olakanmi, Cincinnati, USA

While the media and his fans were fawning about the supposedly great artist (who hadn't released anything decent in years), the rest of us were sending each other a battery of tasteless jokes about what a weirdo Jackson was. Strange how the latter never got reported.

Actually the first I heard of his death was when a mate texted me a joke about it.
Neil Macdonald, Manchester uk

I'm glad this article has been written as it echoes what my friends and I have been talking about recently, how people jump on a bandwagon when someone dies, regardless of how they were perceived when they were alive. Before Jade Goody died the media labelled her a racist but as soon as she was diagnosed with cancer she became the nation's favourite (I cannot remember being consulted on this!). Blame the media for this fickle use of celebrities to sell papers or magazines.
James, London, UK

Finally! It is such a relief to read a note like this one, where facts are weighed against sentiments. No one is perfect and in the end, the obituary should be a practical and concise summary of someone's life, not a blind praising document.

Michael Jackson didn't cure illness, stop famine or heal the sick. He didn't even invent the Moonwalk. His one true claim to historical importance is as the first African American performer to conquer the mainstream of entertainment... but he was hardly the messianic figure that he's currently being depicted as.
Stephen Saul, Brighton

I can't believe how quick the text message 'jokes' start arriving on my phone as soon as someone notable has died. Nothing seems to be off limits either, I admit to selectively forwarding them to friends I know will get the irony of 'how bad is this?, what odious little troll dreamed that up?
David Reilly, Loughborough, England

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