Cultural Caviar

Obit Snit

June 09, 2018

Was the obituary an apt summary of Mrs. Dehmlow’s residence on earth? She was 80 when she died, and one tends to think of elderly people as benign almost ex officio. From an early age, I preferred the old to the young; I found them more interesting, kinder, more decent, less egocentric than the young. Was this an effect of aging itself, or had they started out better than we, human character having deteriorated in the meantime? But I also discovered that when old people are nasty and selfish, they are very nasty and selfish.

The Dehmlow obituary in a local newspaper in the Midwest of America was soon withdrawn from the newspaper’s website because some readers had objected that it was in bad taste. No doubt it was, but bad taste (provided that good, in general, prevails) sometimes serves a useful purpose, jolting our complacency. It also serves the function of arousing enjoyable outrage. I can well imagine the pleasure that those who protested to the newspaper took in being scandalized, as well as in the obituary itself. It allowed them to reinforce their membership of the regiment of the righteous. As the great French sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out more than a century ago, criminals (in moderation, he did not specify the exact number necessary) help to solidify a society, insofar as they unite the majority against them who therefore have their moral indignation in common to unite them.

Another French thinker, La Rochefoucauld, said that in most people love of justice is only fear of suffering injustice. Perhaps outrage at derogatory obituaries is only fear of being oneself derogatively obituarized.


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