I’ve been doing some family history research lately, and I happened upon a case where a distant relative seems to have been in a terrible state of mind, lured his ex-girlfriend – the mother of one of his children – to his house, killed her, set the house and other structures on his property on fire, then killed himself. What was left of their bodies had to be transported to another state for advanced DNA testing to try to identify them conclusively.
If I remember correctly, this happened in 2006. There’s still a news article related to this to be found, but the death announcement is long gone. Mind you, that’s all it was; I don’t believe that there was any sort of narrative obituary. In other words, this man’s family wasn’t going to pretend that he was a wonderful person.
This is in contrast to a couple of high-profile crimes in the last couple of years where the families of perpetrators of horrific crimes decided to run glowing obituaries of their loved ones. First there is this one, of a young man named Benjamin Morrow: https://www.ryanfuneralservice.com/notices/Benjamin-Morrow. The obituary starts out “Benjamin Douglas Morrow, age 28, went home to his Heavenly Father on March 5, 2018.” The entire obituary stresses this man’s “Christian credentials”, and paints him as a very nice guy. What the obituary fails to mention was that he died in an explosion tinkering with explosives in his apartment – what the intended use of them was is anybody’s guess. Not only that, but the explosives were deemed so unstable that everybody else who lived in his apartment building lost everything they had because the whole structure had to be burned to the ground in order to mitigate the risk of another explosion.
Another recent case of this happened just a couple months ago in Ohio, where Connor Betts, who gunned down nine people in Dayton, was glowingly remembered in an obituary written by his parents. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/08/14/dayton-gunman-connor-betts-obituary-removed-from-website/2010108001/) In this case, the parents ended up removing it after community outrage. However, in this case, their son also killed his sister, and his parents also thought that it was somehow appropriate to have their funerals together, until, again, the outrage forced them to change plans.
No one wants to believe that they raised a monster. Most people don’t even want to admit that people they are friends with could do horrible things. It very much feels like an indictment of one’s self.
However, it is absolutely not appropriate to celebrate the lives of people who “went out” doing things that were malicious and downright evil. Sure, these are not the memories the parents have, and they will struggle for the rest of their lives trying to reconcile the innocence that they saw these children come with into the world with the malfeasance with which they exited. For themselves, they will be working on trying to balance those two realities for as long as they live.
However, in public, it is a slap in the face not just to those who suffered as a result of their loved ones’ actions, but to the community as a whole to pretend that these were somehow “wonderful” people. It is sickening because it serves as an attempt to redeem their character after dying committing horrendous crimes. It serves to say, “Hey, this person is just as much of a “nice” person as anyone else.” That is a lie. We are not judged on the basis of “nice”; we are judged on our faith in Jesus Christ, and how that faith led us to conduct our lives.
It is in the nature of an obituary to be selective about the facts presented. Often, there is as much to read into what doesn’t get said as to what does. If there has been a divorce, unless there are children from the marriage, that spouse often doesn’t get mentioned. If someone was not necessarily easy to get along with, people will do their best either not to say anything, or to find something else positive to say.
I remember being astonished, as a young child, when a family member who was known to be a difficult person died, and how all the family around seemed to have nice stories to tell involving this person. For me, there existed a disconnect, but it also helped teach me a bit about the human condition; that we all carry in us the good things and the not-so-great qualities as well.
However, in the in cases here in Beaver Dam and Dayton, the disconnect is too much; we understand that this is evil, and it was something planned and plotted and there is nothing to be gained in pretending that this wasn’t the case. If we lose that understanding, we end up with ridiculous situations like one recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a cheerleading squad was denied the ability to present a tribute to a cheerleader from the squad who had been murdered in May by her ex-boyfriend, a football player from the same school. The school’s reasoning on this was they wanted to “remain neutral” on the issue, especially considering that the ex-boyfriend’s brother still plays on the football team. What the school failed to acknowledge in their “neutral” stance is that instead of being neutral, it drew a moral equivalence between the memory of the slain girl and the “right” of the family of the murderer not to have to acknowledge publicly what he did.
Acknowledging evil in ourselves and in our loved ones is an extremely painful thing to do. However, when we don’t acknowledge it for what it is, we allow it to grow. In the case of my distant relative, I think the family did the right thing insofar as they did not try to glorify this man’s life in an effort to “redeem” him for the action that caused his death. There used to be a good number of things that might lead a family not to post an obituary at all (children born out of wedlock, for example), but not only that, there were a number of things which would also make it difficult to be buried by a church (suicide is one that comes to mind immediately). I understand that much fewer people worry about their ability to be buried by their churches these days, but I do believe that part of the purpose of these rules was to reign in the very human tendency to moral equivalence, particularly when in regard to people we know and care about.