Speak of the dead

By | 2013/06/03

QuietIn Speaking Ill of the Dead, I finished by suggesting that it was time to change the old saying, “speak no ill of the dead” to “of the dead, speak only the truth”. That is, when someone dies, it’s not the time for what would otherwise be slanderous attacks, nor is it the time for mindless adulation bordering on canonisation. Instead, in the information age, we should be focused primarily on making sure the truth about a person is told when they die.

This creates an interesting issue in Australia, of course. For many of our indigenous people, showing media of, or mentioning the names of those who have passed is considered highly disrespectful. For most of my life I remember periodically seeing a documentary start on the ABC stating that (paraphrasing):

Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders are advised that this programme features video and voices of deceased persons.

With the death today of the Aboriginal lead singer of a band from the 90s, it seems whole segments of Australian media have forgotten this practice.

Ordinarily I’d have a problem with a blanket veto of mentioning names or showing footage of deceased people just on the basis of a cultural convention. In Who owns Grief?, I suggested that in the growing social networking environment, we need to be tackle the issue of grief ownership – does the right of close family to grieve in a peculiar way take precedence over the rights of others to grieve how they would grieve?

Yet, this isn’t a blanket veto – just a policy that media should avoid showing footage or mentioning names without giving people a chance to avoid seeing/hearing. On the internet, there’s really no excuse for this – it’s trivial for a news organisation for instance to put a brief warning in place of where the article would normally be, with that including a link to the full article where such details are included.

As an atheist it would be tempting to suggest these cultural memes come from forms of religion or spirituality, and are therefore irrelevant; that being said, there’s equally room to consider that taking such a hard line could result in unpleasant cultural imperialism – something Australia is already awash with from English colonial times. I.e., this isn’t just about logic, it still has to be about respect.

This particular issue doesn’t need to be a difficult one though. There’s room in the accepted avoidance practices to allow the conveying of accurate information about deceased people while still paying heed to the grief process and cultural norms of the indigenous population.

Maybe one day in the future it might be time for a discussion about those conventions, but I don’t think it’s today, or even this decade. And the behaviour of many media outlets today in their rush to get a story to press proved that.