Speaking Well of the Dead

On July 29, 1997, a representative philosophe of our abortion culture, retired Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, was lavishly eulogized in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where the Requiem Mass for President Kennedy had been sung in 1963. Richard Cardinal Cushing was relatively constrained back then, because liturgical depredations had not yet switched into high gear. It was not thus when our president, who vetoed the ban on partial-birth abortions, was permitted to announce to all corners of the cathedral for consumption in all corners of the world: “Brennan’s America is America at its best.” That is, internecine America is at its best with 39 million fewer children than would have been born were it not for Brennan’s eisegesis of the Constitution. Attorney General Janet Reno later said in a speech to the American Bar Association that the honors paid to Brennan in St. Matthew’s Cathedral inspired her to go on.

As Dr. Johnson conceded, in lapidary inscriptions no man is upon oath. To avoid testing this protocol in the sanctuary where only truth is to be spoken, eulogies were discouraged in more honest days when even romanticized charlatans and avuncular Caligulas could be buried, but with the crepe of contrition. Since Americans became persuaded that God is a Butterfly, funerals have started to resemble Jeanette Macdonald’s airy obsequies at Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1965, with canaries warbling fantasias in gilded cages. Nature had revenge when the canaries were released and dropped dead on the heads of mourners, victims of hot air and manifest incontinence. No such favor was granted on July 29 in St. Matthew’s Cathedral when a priest asked from the pulpit: “How does a young man, son of immigrants, rise to such a position of judicial pre-eminence, with almost the entire government present to honor him on the day of his burial?” It would have been lovely if St. Thomas More had dropped from Heaven right then. A brief glimpse of the saint’s head would have been a sufficient reply.

Once in a press conference in which he distanced himself from the angels on significant points of behavior, Senator Edward Kennedy said that St. Thomas More had been “intolerant.” The saint indeed had been intolerant, but of falseness. The logician in him would have found grotesque the Orwellian doublethink of the priest-eulogist who said that one way to honor Brennan’s memory would be to help “a young pregnant girl.” The jurist in him would have raised an eyebrow when the priest declared: “The Brennan mind met the Brennan heart, and in their perfect match was the secret greatness of our friend.” A meeting of mind and heart is anatomically difficult when there is a spine; and when More insisted on this point, his King obliged with an ax. In the majority opinion on Roe v. Wade, Brennan concurring, mind and heart congealed to produce the words: “If the human race is to survive, pregnancy will always be with us.” The twentieth century has taught that such banality can be the diction of cruelty incarnadine.

Senator Kennedy often seems innocent of historical information, as he was in an interview with an Italian reporter in 1982 when he placed the Battle of Lepanto in the Second World War. This has made him a much sought-after eulogist. Except for his recidivistic neglect of verbs, the rhetorical senator can excel Bossuet on the death of the Prince de Conde. At a requiem for Mr. Stephen Smith, he pictured his father and brothers playing golf on a cloud with his spontaneously beatified brother-in-law. The press quoted this recreational account of the Beatific Vision with murmurs of approval.

It is not that Senator Kennedy should have said anything tactless over the corpse, or that he should have mentioned some more vigorous sport instead; he simply should not have been saying anything at all from the pulpit. If Horace Walpole thought Dante was a “Methodist parson in Bedlam,” anyone who believes in the Four Last Things might take Senator Kennedy in the pulpit for a therapist in Camelot. The misguided may excuse this because “funerals are really for the family,” but that is not so: consolation of the bereaved is a derivative benefit of the first purpose of the funeral rites, which is the offering of prayer and eucharistic sacrifice for the dead. When that purpose is not understood, the rites themselves may succumb to parallel intuitions of stoicism and sentimentalism. Mix the two into an incongruous brew, and the reaction is nervous banter around the coffin, and self-conscious whimsy.

Senator Kennedy is not to be blamed more than some clergymen who blow kisses to reality from a distance. Recently, when a prominent athlete died after a raucous life, a prelate from a cathedral pulpit described Christ the Umpire calling “Safe!” as the man slid into home plate. The shaky metaphysic was not what St. Paul meant by running the race. Gone, long gone, is the quality of unction that moved a holy friar in Paris centuries ago to preach exquisitely over a one man slum of a bishop who had died in a lady’s arms: “Perhaps Monseigneur’s only mistakes were his manner of living and his manner of dying.” Any public figure who is subject of the prayers of such a friar must have a happier frame of mind on the other side of the grave than one whose presumption is frivolously vested as grace.

The Church’s rubrics require that anything edifying in the deceased’s life be mentioned only as commentary on the Gospel. Our “Culture of Death,” as the pope calls it, is idiosyncratic in its refusal to be cogent about the Gospel mystery of death itself. In its rejection of moral reality, this lurid cultural paradigm mocks the imperatives of the mystery by applauding the guilty as cold-bloodedly as it destroys the innocent. Where the idol worshipped by a culture is one’s public image, even candor must be sacrificed to it; and when only the self is celebrated, celebrity canonizes itself. All the Holy Sonnets are replaced by one unholy bravado: “Death be proud.”

The noble pagans flattered and flowered their dead because they could not absolve them. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum is not a Christian dictum; speaking nothing but good of the dead translates the Spartan decency of Chilon who lived six centuries before the incarnation of the Redeemer. Chilon was a wise magistrate himself, and as merciful as a Spartan could be, but his mercy was not that of Christ the Judge, for Chilon had no power to summon the dead: “Come forth!” The noble pagan tried to make the best of a bad thing, urging a social convention born of pessimism. The mercy of God changes pessimism to hope, and hope is the engine of honesty. In obedience to the Divine Mercy, speaking well of the dead may sometimes require not speaking good of the dead. However many different ways there are to say it, everyone has the same eulogy: “There is none good but one, that is, God: but if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.”

For some, those words are a bit too terse. In a more florid tribute to Brennan, but snobbishly for a populist, Father Robert Drinan of the Georgetown University Law Center wrote: “When we think of Irish Catholics in public life we usually call to mind mayors, local officials and, yes, ward bosses. Brennan shattered all those images. He was an intellectual, a visionary, a prophet. . . . His memory will be forever held in benediction.” Although Drinan made no allusion to Mount Sinai, he did compare Brennan favorably with the author of the Code of Hammurabi.

Even in our coarse times, a remnant etiquette should prevail in moments of emotional strain. A veil is drawn over those who grieve, and if Edward Kennedy and Robert Drinan can support each other in mourning the death of William Brennan, they should be allowed to do so. But when they publish their grief, they invite remark. They may even conjure commentary from gaunt ghosts long dead who can tutor lesser cynics in calculation. For all his odd little ways with God, preternaturally cynical Napoleon held trimmers of the Gospel in contempt even as he made use of them. As Talleyrand, ex-bishop of Autun, approached him arm in arm with Joseph Fouche, the ex-Oratorian brother and agent of the Terror, Napoleon muttered: “Vice on the arm of crime.” From time to time, there actually appear on the public scene individuals who can fit that description by hugging themselves.

Descent to the phosphorescent obsequiousness of Mr. Justice Brennan’s funeral was greased by the efficient compact John F. Kennedy made in his run for the presidency, telling the Protestant clergymen in Houston that he would never be under the thumb of a pope. He should have stuck to the advice of Pius VII on the lengths of accommodation: “We are prepared to go to the gates of Hell, but no further.” After Kennedy nudged public Catholicism from the snows of Canossa to the sands of Palm Beach, eulogists claimed that his gnostic kind of religiosity was Catholicism come of age, but it was Catholicism ashamed of its age: God’s good servant, but the King’s first.

In Camelot this was hailed as prudence, though it was little more than cunning. St. Thomas Aquinas knew it as astutia: morally neutral in its original meaning, but vicious as an excuse for imprudence. It exploited a tribalism that was willing to wink at the roguish ways of any one of the boys who moved on up from the ranks of mayors and ward bosses to become accepted by the chattering classes as “an intellectual, a visionary, a prophet.”

One of its kitchiest ikons was a painting commissioned by Monsignor Aloysius Dineen of New York, showing Pope John XXIII and President Kennedy together feeding doves. The painting has been removed from the church where it first hung, but it still prompts to panegyrics those who think that Kennedy made it possible for a Catholic to become president, when he only made it possible for a Catholic who behaves like a modern Episcopalian to become president. One positive item salvaged by John Kennedy from his Anglo-Saxon formation was a line repeated every year by the headmaster of the Choate School, the Rev. George St. John: “Ask not what your school can do for you, ask what you can do for your school.” He absorbed the words until he felt free to modify them, as he also did with the Ten Commandments. His extended family may now be in the process of doing the same even to the Code of Hammurabi.

Before there was a White House, Jesus Christ spoke of whited sepulchers. I do not know if this would fall under the category of what Congressman Joseph Kennedy allegedly refers to as “Catholic gobbledygook,” but Christ did say it, and he said it because he disdained hypocrisy. According to our friend Dr. Johnson, who was more intuitively Catholic than many putative Catholics: “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” If churchmen insist on eulogizing, they might get right to the point by describing what sort of pleasures occupied the dead in their lifetimes. The thought could restrain them from jumping into celebrity graves. It certainly would temper any propensity for Shakespeare’s “Sweet words, low-crooked curtsies, and base spaniel fawning.”

Surreal Catholicism has spawned a neurotic parade of celebrities who think incense is a form of aromatheraphy, and a harrowing pantheon of politicians who consult L’Osservatore Romano less than George magazine. What panegyrics will he gassed over them within the House of God? We have cause for concern, given the precedent of the Maeterlinck “there is no death” sort of poetry read over the body of Mrs. Jacqueline Onassis by her house mate.

In the moral order, one may not pass final judgment on another. Savanarola called that to the attention of a bishop who was damning him to all eternity. One is also required to make temporal judgments according to one’s state in life. That is why there are judges. That is why there are social institutions, beginning with the family. That, above all, is why there is a Church endowed with supernal keys and censures. Madness consists in the inability to make right judgments, and it is the very definition of depravity beyond madness to fail to perceive the need for right judgments at all. Our present problem is not the arrogance of damning souls to hell. The plague is of courtiers who subpoena charity to defend sloth and, having so dazzled the jury, proceed to judge publicly that their little lords are in heaven.

The Brennan funeral followed one in Miami for Mr. Gianni Versace, the rich Italian tailor whose work, according to a breathless release from the Catholic News Service, was “noted for its sensual lines and eye-catching combinations of texture and shade.” His priest-eulogist baroquely envisioned the murdered man decorating the wings of angels, and recalled a promise that if he became pope he would have Versace design the cardinals’ robes. Well then, the eulogy might have ornamented sacred rhetoric by adapting Evelyn Waugh’s assessment of Anthony Eden: “He is not a gentleman. He dresses too well.” Instead, the preacher burst into song: some lines from a popular Broadway show tune, a toe-tapper to be sure, but not quite up to the “Dies Irae.” Then the neurasthenia went international: another requiem for Versace in the cathedral of Milan featured Elton John and Sting tearfully crooning on the spot where Ambrosian chant was invented.

Later that summer, as Byrd and Handel and Elgar rolled in their graves and the Great Organ of Westminster Abbey was hushed, Mr. John, now raised to the rank of universal banshee, wailed on a piano for the Princess of Wales who was “the real Queen” according to television reporters who could not tell a Plantagenet from an eggplant. Using as theme music Mr. John’s song originally written for Marilyn Monroe, solemn newscasters morphed Diana with Mother Teresa whom CNN sidelined as “another notable and good woman.” It was like the time Ulysses S. Grant told the second Duke of Wellington that he understood his father had also been a military man. Great Wellington, as a man upon oath all his life, would have been a singular eulogist. When a London mob, demonstrating adoration for George IV’s hapless and estranged Caroline of Brunswick, threatened to not let him pass until he cheered her, the Iron Duke answered from his high horse: “Well, gentlemen, since you will have it so—‘God save her!’—and may all your wives be like her.”

There may be those who agree with the above, but confide that it would be better all around if it were not said. In the second volume of the Historical Sketches, introducing Chrysostom, John Henry Newman cautiously refers to “the endemic perennial fidget which possesses us about giving scandal; facts are omitted in great histories, or glosses are put upon memorable acts, because they are thought not edifying, whereas of all scandals such omissions, such glosses, are the greatest.”

How odd it is that a society that has made a fashion of apologizing for every auto da féin Spain and every slave auction in Savannah will not apologize for sycophancy and cynicism. Many, apparently, do not have time to go to confession because they are too busy begging public forgiveness for the slaughter of Hypatia. Gratuitous apologizing for the crimes of other ages and people is dangerous humbug, said C. S. Lewis; it weighs in well with the press, but less so on the scales of justice, for it can be detraction masked as contrition. At the same time, Never Never Land finds indecipherable what C. S. Lewis meant by authentic penance and accountability.

If eulogies are not sensibly stopped, I do hope they will be more precise than what was said at Justice Brennan’s cathedral rites: “Wisdom tells us that the souls of the just are in the hands of God.” I am all for wisdom. So much so, that I question whether we are to assume that a man is just by having been declared a Justice by his government. I am so much for wisdom that I fear the souls of the unjust might be in the fists of God. I am even so much for wisdom that I hope a merciful God will not squeeze his fists too tightly. And I am so completely for wisdom that I remember how the finger of God once wrote a eulogy on the wall of Belshazzar’s feast. From the perspective of those who thought Belshazzar charming, the graffiti was in bad taste. But the party was over, and the sweet singing canaries were dead on the floor.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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