When then President Bill Clinton spoke at former President Richard Nixon’s funeral, he suggested that the “day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.” The speaker had no clue at the time how much he would need that kind of big-picture graciousness later on, but these sentiments are common on such occasions.
Having been a member of the clergy for 32 years, it has been my duty to officiate memorial services, comforting mourners while doing my best to eulogize the deceased. The word eulogy is rooted in scripture, most often translated as some form of “bless,” it literally means “to speak well of.” It is actually not intrinsically a word for funerals, but that’s where the concept shows up for the most part in our culture.
Apparently the idea is that to eulogize someone before death is, well, premature.
Of course, it is easier to eulogize some people more than others - always the minister’s dilemma. What do you say when there is a shortage of good anecdotal material? Vernon Johns, the legendary, eloquent, and controversial forerunner to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, reputedly once made quick work of a funeral sermon for a particularly notorious man. Against the grain and at the risk of offending the sensibilities of his very proper audience, he uttered a few sentences about the dead man’s notable wickedness and then ended with an abrupt: “Now, carry out the body!”
But usually it’s nice stuff that is said. Much of it is true and most of it is presented with a positive spin. It is, of course, this way with the various tributes, remembrances, and yes – eulogies - about Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy, who died the other day after a valiant battle with brain cancer.
Mr. Clinton’s fantasy about no bigger-picture judgment notwithstanding, it is simply not realistic, nor is it very honest to ignore the “warts-and-all” aspects of someone’s life en route to putting it all into perspective. His executive order delivered to a crowd of mourners in Yorba Linda, California on April 27, 1994, was not obeyed. In fact, it was almost instantly dismissed, largely because Nixon wasn’t one of “them” – the liberal media elite.