Rest in peace: The politics of remembering the personal failings of the dead

RIP: When is it OK to speak ill of the dead?

TORONTO — Tradition dictates that when we bury the dead, we also bury their faults, failings and any transgressions.

“Don’t speak ill of the dead” is an enduring mantra for many who would rather put their pain to rest than continue to dwell on it.

And so revelations that a murdered Winnipeg bus driver was also facing criminal charges has sparked debate over whether such ugliness should be dredged up at all.

Irvine Jubal Fraser was stabbed to death early Tuesday on a university campus.

When the Winnipeg Free Press reported two days later that Fraser was facing child sexual assault charges at the time of his death, it triggered outrage among readers who objected to reporting unproven, and apparently unrelated, claims.

“Ever hear of human decency? Obviously not otherwise you would have allowed his family to mourn in peace. Shame on you,” tweeted one reader with the handle @HeatherRF68, self-described as a mom of three in suburban Winnipeg.

As of Friday afternoon, Winnipeg Free Press editor Paul Samyn said the city desk had received about five calls and that he had received a few emails, as did the two reporters who handled the story. The paper was not accepting comments on the online version of the story. The Canadian Press also reported on the charges Fraser was facing.

“For those who are grieving or shocked by a tragedy, it can be very hard for them to also have to deal with facts that add to their pain or shock,” Samyn said in an email. “But our responsibility as journalists also involves revealing truths that unfortunately, may be also inconvenient for those who only want a certain narrative from the media.”

The CBC did not report the charges, arguing in an internal memo to staff that they were not relevant to the central issue of whether bus drivers and their passengers are safe.

Sociology professor Elizabeth Comack questioned the purpose of the article, noting the claims were unproven and being handled by the courts.

“What is the reader expected to take away from that?” said Comack, an instructor at the University of Manitoba where some students had to step around police tape surrounding the blood-stained pavement at the scene of Fraser’s death.

“To raise that as an issue, you’re left with this impression that, OK, does this mean that somehow he’s a less worthy victim? Because of this are we to see him as less deserving of our sympathies and our sorrow?”

The article also noted that Fraser had been out on bail awaiting trial, and that his union seemed to have no knowledge of the case.

Comack said that implied Fraser wouldn’t have been on the job had he told the union of the charges, and was therefore somewhat responsible for his own death.

While Comack notes it’s unfortunate the complainant will never get a day in court, she adds that Fraser was “violently and tragically killed.”

“That’s the story right now.”

A journalism ethics professor said he, too, found the Free Press report “quite problematic.”

“I think the news value is questionable in a case like this,” said Aneurin Bosley of Carleton University. “The bus driver is really not a public figure beyond the fact that he was killed on the job and obviously he’s never going to get his day in court now so we’ll never find out whether or not the allegations are going to stand up to a trial.”

The well-established tradition to avoid criticizing the recently deceased is rooted in basic etiquette, says protocol instructor Leanne Pepper, who teaches university students and serves as general manager of the Faculty Club at the University of Toronto.

“I always say that when you go into these events you don’t want to be the complainer, the whiner, and if you can’t say anything positive you don’t say anything at all,” said Pepper.

“When is it appropriate? That’s a difficult one. If it’s a hard thing to keep inside, you need to find another way to be able to express those feelings. Therapists help.”

At the funeral of Toronto mayor Rob Ford, he was lauded as a good father and there was little mention of his international reputation as a crack-smoking mayor, she notes.

However, that elicited complaints from some Toronto residents critical of Ford’s behaviour while in office.

Charlotte Koven, a Toronto psychotherapist who specializes in grief counselling, says we all present different faces to different people, depending on our relationships.

“People tend to glorify someone and it can be very frustrating to those who saw other sides of them. And it can also be very hurtful to the people who knew the person in another way,” said Koven, noting that ignoring abusive behaviour can disavow the victims’ pain.

“I have actually been at a funeral where I wanted to jump up and say: ‘That’s not the person I knew. He was a such-and-such and I could tell you a lot of other things about this person.'”

But Koven appreciated the honesty of another eulogy in which children stated in a diplomatic but very clear way that their parent could be difficult.

Meanwhile, the recent obituary of Leslie Ray Charping, born in Galveston, Texas, is making the rounds online for being remarkably frank in its portrayal of an abusive father: “Leslie’s passing proves that evil does in fact die and hopefully marks a time of healing and safety for all,” says the notice, posted on the Carnes Funeral Home website.

It would be ideal to address such relationship issues before someone dies. But Comack acknowledges that a traumatized family member may struggle with conflicting emotions.

“The need to actually name your anger, name some of the things the deceased person has done, that is part of the healing, that’s part of being able to move on,” said Comack, who comes from a family of funeral directors.

Still, Koven wondered if such pain needs to be acknowledged publicly.

She notes that hurtful revelations could blindside family members unaware of abuse, and cause more damage.

“Maybe that public forum is not the place where it would be helpful for anybody.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

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