Few impulses survive from Viking times.
You seldom see people getting together for a good pillage. But the desire to construct an elaborate pyre after someone’s passing and set the body on fire has never been stronger.
When did we become a country of grave dancers?
Everybody seems to be doing it. Jan Berenstain, of all the sweet innocuous people, passed away, and Hanna Rosin at Slate’s XX Factor crowed, “Good riddance.” (She has since apologized.)
Andrew Breitbart, a much more controversial figure, passes, and Twitter melted my phone. Breitbart, founder of BigGovernment.com, BigHollywood.com and other Big Web sites, was an outsize personality who owned — among other things — the Weiner scandal, and he was no slouch at making enemies. Some of the most careful were those who’d criticized him in life. But only some.
When did we decide this was acceptable?
We used to wait a few days before shooting people’s remains out of cannons. Now it’s a horrible race, practically a national pastime. “I can’t go out tonight,” you tell your friends. “I’m staying in to write nasty ill-considered things about people who have recently died.”
Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate cavalryman of exceptional brutality, who has been dead long enough that I feel comfortable in saying that he was a horrible individual, said his goal was to “get there first with the most.” That’s the goal of 25/7 media, in a nutshell. Be first. And if you can’t — or even if you can — be loudest, and pound everyone into submission.
It’s not merely in the comments section, though that’s where some of the worst of it lurks. Gene Weingarten described it well — reading the comments after a piece is like asking for your steak to be served with a side of maggots. And the maggots tend to flock to the recently deceased.
But the comments area has always been thus, and to hold it to the same standard as the signed words of Actual People would be more, I think, than we can hope or even want from folks with monikers like “manray” and “stogiebear.”
If only it were just the comments. Then it would be easy.
But it’s the text too. These days, in writing anything at all, you are confronted with hard, numeric evidence of the fact that America would rather read about Snooki’s pregnancy. After that, how to go on? Sometimes you yawn and capitulate, and a story about My Strong Feelings With Regard to Snooki winds up in the Outlook section.
Sometimes you just decide to yell louder, more outre things about something else. If people won’t listen, you can compel them to at least turn their heads a moment. And when someone dies, there’s your chance. “He’s trending on Google!” you mutter. “I’ll finally say all those things I’ve been bottling for decades, many of which are unfit for print and none of which I would say to anyone who’d known him personally.” It’s the verbal equivalent of inviting the Westboro Baptist congregation to the departed’s funeral.
I seldom have occasion to wish I were dead. Even in the longest of escalator lines and during the dullest of speeches, when my head aches and I suspect that all my friends have deserted me and moved to San Francisco to form lasting bonds, I cherish life. The one time I wish to change places with the dead is when I read some of the things that have been written about them.
But surely, some point out, there should be an exception in this case! Breitbart did not start the fire, but he certainly poured kerosene on the flames after Ted Kennedy’s demise, calling him a “duplicitous bastard” and “special pile of human excrement.”
Why afford him the respect he didn’t afford others? Isn’t there some sort of waiver for the death of people one personally dislikes, especially if they were once cruel? Well, no. And thank heavens. This is how things look without one.
In Othello, the title character begs, “Speak of me as I am/ Nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice.” Those words are always useful, but especially after death. Heap the pyre high. But no need to set anyone on fire.