Speaking ill of the dead

by James Wysong on July 25, 2006

A friend and fellow flight attendant phoned me one day and told me to turn on my television.

“Oh Lord,” I thought, unable to handle another terrorist tragedy. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You know that pilot you can’t stand?” he asked.

I knew immediately who he was talking about. I rarely take an extreme dislike to anyone, but this pilot was an exception. He was obnoxious, he bragged excessively and he lied about many things. My contempt for this person was not hidden from anyone — including him — and he felt similarly toward me.

“Yeah, why?” I said.

“Turn on Channel 5,” he replied.

I did as he asked, and there was a reporter standing beside the wreckage of a small general aviation aircraft. It was totaled, lying on the side of a road. The newscaster named the deceased pilot and the airline he worked for. It was my not-so-favorite pilot. I felt guilty, but I couldn’t bring myself to look on him in a better light now that he was dead. I certainly never wished this kind of harm on him or his family, but the truth is: I never liked the guy.

The days that followed were a bit odd. Everybody seemed to remember my particular dislike for the man and made sure they mentioned it in passing conversation

“I heard about your buddy,” they’d say. Or, “Don’t let me get on your bad side!” Or, “What happens to the people you really dislike?”

To make matters worse, the pilot was lauded as a hero for diverting the failing airplane away from the main city, thereby sparing lives on the ground. I wouldn’t want to rain on anyone’s hero parade, but I thought that was a pilot’s main duty when incurring an engine failure.

So now I was the “hero hater.” Some pilots even refused to speak to me (which, in some cases, was a blessing). Sure, I felt guilty, but what people weren’t getting is this: Death can take the body, but anger, annoyance, and ill will endure. The pilot was gone, but my feelings for him hadn’t changed a bit.

I can’t stand it when people at funerals protest their undying love or respect for someone they actually detested. That pretense infuriates me. “Speak no ill of the dead” – that’s good advice, but so is this: “If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.”

My sympathy goes out to the pilot’s family, for they have lost someone very dear to them. It’s a terrible loss of life, and I am thankful other lives were spared by this pilot’s aviation skill. But the fact remains: I didn’t like the guy, and he didn’t like me.

He’s probably not the only one. I am sure that when I die, there will be people who say, “He never took life seriously.” Or, “He always had to be the center of attention.” Or even, “He wasn’t that good a writer.” (OK, I could do without the last comment.)

Morbidly enough, my publisher once told me that the surest way for my books to become bestsellers would be for me to die in some kind of airplane-related accident.

Somehow, that was not so reassuring.

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