Helen Martin: Don’t be a fake, speak ill of dead

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FOR me, it is all too easy to understand those people who want to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher rather than mourn her. And I suppose those who admire her and feel she deserves a ceremonial funeral on a par with Princess Diana or the Queen Mother – albeit a minority in Scotland – are equally entitled to their views.

But such was her unpopularity and so hated was she, that she is one of the few people I can think of who would make so many break such a powerful taboo as “speaking ill of the dead”, let alone having a party to metaphorically dance on her grave.

Glenda Jackson gave an honest response but it is surprising how many Labour politicians especially tried frantically to come up with some vague platitude or cleverly twisted phraseology to make it appear – through gritted teeth – that they regretted her passing. Even Alex Salmond quickly volunteered to attend the funeral if he was invited. He may come to regret that.

One TV presenter, during the interminable hours and hours devoted to Maggie’s life and death in the last week, tried to look solemn as she said that however anyone felt about Mrs Thatcher, she was after all a lady of 87 with dementia who had died. It spoke volumes that these were the only attributes she could come up with on the spur of the moment.

So does this discomfort about any criticism of the deceased really have any moral foundation? Or is it just an old superstition, a feeling that being honest about how loathed someone was in life will cause their ghost to rise and haunt us from beyond the grave?

Even today, most of us still have an in-built brake that stops us criticising the dead – and there are good reasons. Most of us can empathise because one day we, too, will be six feet under or pass through the fiery furnace and we wouldn’t like to leave a baying, cheering mob in our wake.

Most of all, we can empathise because not one of us is perfect. We all make mistakes. All we can do as we trundle through our earthly existence is try to be good and care for others, especially the less fortunate.

There we may have the reason why, when someone such as Mrs Thatcher dies, someone who didn’t acknowledge her mistakes, who didn’t believe in consensus, and who put ambition for herself and the country above care for its citizens with whom she couldn’t even begin to empathise, we can so easily shrug off the “rules” of humanity, including speaking only well of the dear departed.

How do we describe a politician, a business person or anyone who holds such responsibilities to others, yet cares more about policies than people and completely ignores the rights of those with whom they disagree and over whom they wield power? A sociopath? Mrs T came right out and said it: “There is no such thing as society.”

She was – thank goodness – a most unusual woman, who arouses most unusual feelings of adoration or loathing.

Perfectly kind and normal people who would usually be respectful and protective towards the bereaved have no such concerns for Carol and Mark Thatcher. Those who would happily put their hand in their pockets to contribute to the funeral of an unknown tramp are furious that one penny of their taxes is going towards burying “that woman”.

Live by the sword and die by the sword is a phrase that could have been invented for this situation.

Growing old, having dementia and even dying doesn’t make someone a better person, or more loved, than they were in life. Power, 
intransigence and an excess of self-belief are not endearing traits and offer no justification for fond remembrance.

No doubt some people – Denis and her children, for example – did love her. Norman Tebbit seems to have had genuine loyalty and regard for her. No-one, even Mrs T, can be all bad.

But perhaps Mrs Thatcher has taught us all one final lesson. It is not wrong to speak ill of the dead if they caused misery while they were alive. It is worse to be dishonest and fake grief.

And it is not the act of a wise Prime Minister to force the population into funding a lavish farewell for a former PM who left so many unable to feed their own families, let alone pay for a decent basic funeral of their own.

The public are entitled to express their views, good or bad, on Wednesday. Those who want to party and celebrate are not hell-bound anarchists. They are honest men and women. And if the dead didn’t want people to speak ill of them, perhaps they should have considered that when they were alive.