Grieving etiquette – when can you speak ill of the dead?


Every time someone in the public eye dies and the media saturates their shows with coverage, a huge debate busts out on DailyKos over when it is OK to cover the negative aspects of that person’s life. So naturally, with such a controversial figure as Michael Jackson passing away this week, there have been some very heated discussions going on there. At issue in particular was that MSNBC and NBC put Maureen Orth on the TV within hours of Jackson’s death knowing full well she was going to go 100% negative. Here is a quick link synopsis of what she was saying right away. I have to admit that while a part of me believes what she is saying 100% true – a larger part of me cringed to hear it so quickly. Perhaps there was the irony of WHO was saying these things? After all, she is the widow of Tim Russert who also died quite suddenly of heart failure. While he was not nearly as world wide popular or controversial, he still had his critics and you be damn sure if she and her son had heard ANY of those things within even a few days – let alone HOURS – of Tim’s death that they would have been even more devastated.

And there in lies the rub I think. Because no matter how heinous someone may have been while living, they were still someones loved one. Someone’s child, sibling, parent, grandparent, left long friend etc. And I think the issue is one of respect for THEIR feelings and grief over the loss vs trying to protect the reputation of the recently deceased. After all, the deceased is..well…dead! Nothing you say is going to hurt THEM anymore.

So clearly I fall on the side of zipping lips for a short period of time. But for how long? And what’s the scale of how bad the deceased has to be before you don’t even bother with respecting their family? Ted Bundy bad?

What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Grieving etiquette – when can you speak ill of the dead?

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  1. Depends on the deceased. I would, at a bare minimum, wait for the corpse to get cold. I would do this not out of concern for the dead louse or for those that might still mistakenly support him/her, but because its a sign of respect for humanity.
    It depends on the case, how much I *know*, and how much I care, I guess.
    I follow the Father Duddleswell approach to Catholic theology – church tradition requires that we believe in the existence of hell, but only a true madman would believe that there is anyone there…

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  2. I kind of felt the opposite, in that I right away was consumed with grief over the loss. And then I couldn’t help but think, But he slept with young boys and thought that was beautiful!

    When someone is a celebrity or in the public eye, I’m not sure there is the same etiquette that governs how we behave with friends or family. I think Orth’s journalist training and ethics drive her to never let compassion override truth.

    At least we normal folks can do both—mourn the extraordinary child and entertainer and artist he was, and in the process perhaps mourn even more for the sickness and demons he carried inside.

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  3. I used to be a reporter, and your mileage may vary, but I think the obituary has to be reasonably balanced. In Tim Russert’s case, I remember reading at least one obituary in which it was mentioned (albeit briefly) that people criticized his work or at least his techniques. Granted, it may not have been one of those which came out right after his death, but it was mentioned. But generally, his life off the job was considered private, and the criticisms did not rise to the level of serious (legal) accusations.

    Jackson’s situation is different because he was much more public and faced some serious accusations, particularly in the child molestation cases. Those cases, and the 1990s financial settlement of one of them, would be part of the public record, as would the acquittal in the case a decade later. I don’t think reporters could avoid discussing those things or the mortgages and other financial problems.

    I would add that the media got slammed (correctly) after Nixon died, for not mentioning Watergate, the Checkers scandal and the Hiss case, all on the public record. The coverage there was called a big whitewash.

    To me, the distinction is between relatively mild criticism (Russert) and serious allegations of misconduct (Jackson and Nixon). That said, the “all Jackson all the time” coverage was ghoulish and unnecessary.

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  4. While I might have (at some time) said a thing or two (though I can’t recall right now), I’d have to say that generally the “don’t speak ill of the dead” policy sounds like a good one. Generally I find it a good idea to take the high road.

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  5. In a perfect world, out of respect for the family, and particularly any surviving young children, the criticism and such should wait until after the funeral.

    But, I also understand the impulse to set the record straight. When someone like Michael Jackson dies I think there is a tendency for fans and media to over-romanticize and exaggerate his achievements. Which leaves those who are not so smitten in a position of trying to give the world a reality check in an effort to get a more balanced view out there in the media. And since the media wants to get as much mileage as they can out of the event, the whole lurid story gets told again and again and again.

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  6. Even after five years, reading this makes my hair stand up. It’s not about “not speaking ill of the death” whenever you deal with Hitler size figures. And even after a person dies, you can still be honest and say you don’t agree with (some) of their actions. This is about willingly slandering a deceased person just to profit from it, to make name for yourself. Something Miss Orth most certainly was willing to do before and after Michael Jackson died. She keeps attacking him as a person, just as people like Diane Dimond, Nancy Grace and Stacy Brown keep doing. These people made a name from bad mouthing Michael Jackson. If it wasn’t for him, most of us probably would even know who they were.
    And even all of you on here are so misinformed about Michael Jackson. You really think fans and others are “over-romantisizing and exaggerating his achievements”?? If this wasn’t such a serious subject, I would be laughing really hard! It seems so easy telling fans they are doing this, that they are blind to the “truth”. While the ones being blind may be you.
    Have you even done your homework about what Michael Jackson had to endure? Did you ever consider the fact he was always being honest about his interaction with children? Do you even realize there are tons of children (not just boys!) who spend time with him, ALL say nothing inappropriate ever happened? Do you know several of the boys have stated they were offered big money by The National Enquirer to just say something happened, even if it wasn’t true?
    Do you know the last boy and his family were well known for swindling famous people? That the mother of the boy had used the cancer of her son before to get money form people? Did you know there had been an investigations by the CPS into this case and they concluded nothing was going on and closed the case?
    I could go on and on about what was wrong with this case, but that would take me several pages.
    Fact is you all never bothered to look deeper, because it’s way easier to just believe the media and people like Maureen Orth, who is just cruel and heartless and she has nothing left but her sad stories about Michael Jackson.
    Michael Jackson was a philanthropist, who saved hundreds of children by paying for medical procedures, medication and better hospitals. He payed for funerals of children who got killed by violence. he donated most of his profits to charity. He was a wonderful father to his 3 children, He cared deeply for the planet and it’s animals. He was kind, humble and sensitive.
    Did he have flaws? Of course! He was a human being. Or do you think he was not entitled to having flaws?? His “sleeping” with children is always falsely interpreted: he always slept on the floor. he always asked the parents for permission for the child to sleep in his room.
    Would it have been better for him not to do this? Possibly yes. The reason he never saw it as anything bad, was because of his own child-like character. He had been betrayed, slandered and stabbed in the back so many times by adults, that he felt save and at ease with children.
    But he never ever hurt a child. So many children to this day say he was nothing but pure and innocent. They defend him until they die. The ones who filed lawsuits now? I can tell you they had nothing bad to say about him until 2012…until they were left out of a deal considering MJ’s legacy….until they ran out of money. The others ( I can give you a list if you want) are the ones who were truly his friend. And they have nothing to gain by slandering this man, this father, this human being.

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  7. P.S. Oh and in case you have forgotten, this man was acquitted of FOURTEEN counts by jury who was almost all white and conservative. Not because of celebrity, but because of lack of evidence.
    The trial almost got him killed, because this was such a heartbreaking case. Shortly before the allegations hit him in 2001, M. Jackson began his fight against the music industry, against Sony and fought for better treatment of black artists and came up for their rights. Then he suddenly was approached for a documentary about his life (Please watch the Living with MJ Take TWO, rebuttal and you will finally learn the truth) and before you know it, he was arrested and on trial for his life. Yes, for his life, because he would not have survived jail.
    Read Aphrodite Jones’ book “The Michael Jackson Conspiracy”. She was a reporter send to cover the trial and she believe he must be guilty. But after the verdict, she did the research and discovered the conspiracy.
    Read Randal Sullivan’s book (he’s a Rolling Stone journalist). You will read Michael Jackson was innocent. Read the book written by one of the boys form back then, Michael Jacobshagen and you will; read nothing ever happened.
    Google Omer Bahtti or Frank Casio; two boys who spend year with Michael, so have their families. It was nothing but innocent and pure friendship.
    Or you can listen to the bitter women, Orth and DImond, who were fans themselves. But they had everything to gain by writing their lies about this man.

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  8. If the truth is what’s being said, it’s quite fine, but when it’s a vendetta, salaciously lying, a desire to keep nailing this man for something he did not do, dirtying his memory, denigrating his persona, his integrity with such malice, then it’s not of course.

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  9. Tim Russert (Orth’s husband) was regarded as a respected journalist despite his critics. Their son is trying it seems to follow in his Father’s footsteps. Maureen Orth, on the other hand, is a tabloid proctologist whose work reflects that title and never rises above that level.

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