Nihil Nisi Bonum
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to listen in on the eulogy at your own funeral? What would people say? What memories would surface? Would your praises be sung naturally and easily or would the truth have to be massaged a little? Would there be tears of sorrow or would genuine grief be an uncomfortably rare commodity? Would the officiant struggle to weave your story into a broader narrative of hope and redemption or would your life fit like a glove?
As it happens, one guy had a chance to find out. Sort of. The popular podcast This American Life recently ran a story called “Commento Mori” which told the story of Dave Maher. Dave was a comedian, a diabetic, a fairly normal guy who evidently enjoyed the party scene a little too much. One day, Dave unexpectedly descended into a coma. His blood sugar got so high that his kidneys began to fail, and his body started to shut down. Days went by and doctors finally recommended that the family take him off life support.
On the day he was to be removed from life support, fifty or sixty friends got together at a wake of sorts and waited for news of his death. It came via a Facebook post which said, simply, “Rest in Peace Dave Maher.” 1700 of Dave’s closest online friends dutifully began to eulogize him on his Facebook wall. It was the usual fare. Thoughts, prayers, funny stories, poignant memories, etc. Dave was praised for his selflessness and the way he cared about people. He was described as a faithful friend. He took time to talk to store employees at Walgreen’s who all knew his name. He treated everyone as an equal. Dave would be dearly missed. One commenter said, “Let’s all be the most ‘Dave Maher’ versions of ourselves we can be.”
Two weeks later, there was another post on Dave’s Facebook wall from an unexpected source. It was from Dave. As in, dead Dave. As it turns out, Dave’s parents had not taken him off life support. They had instead transferred him to another hospital where, at some point, Dave simply emerged out of a month-long coma. Dave was bewildered and a little sheepish, but very much alive.
His brother, ironically, had tried to tell the truth on Facebook the day after Dave had “died.” He had posted:
To friends of David, there seems to be some confusion and unofficial word of Dave’s passing. At the time of this posting, Dave Maher is still with us. Until you hear official word, please, out of respect for him and our family, refrain from posting about Dave in the past tense.
This comment got 70 likes and three comments so at least some people evidently saw it. But the Facebook algorithm buried it. It was overshadowed by all the eulogizing. The “dead Dave” narrative was more popular.
At any rate, Dave found himself with the rare opportunity to read what people had said about him after he was “dead.” He spent hours scrolling through the comments on Facebook. He was stunned. And his heart was warmed and, with his cup overflowing with the inspiration of human kindness, and with a tear in his eye, he solemnly pledged to spend the rest of his days living up to the beautiful words that others had spoken about him. Right?
Well, not exactly. In fact, reading all the Facebook comments made Dave feel pretty terrible. He thought that all the eulogizing and sentimentality was misguided and misplaced. He didn’t recognize the person they were talking about. At one point, Dave said, “I know people don’t talk s*** about someone when they die, but it’s tough to square the image I have of myself with the way other people talked about me when they thought I was dead.” Dave knew the truth. He knew that he wasn’t the guy that people were rhapsodizing about on Facebook. At least not entirely.
Dave knew that he took his depression out on others and that he was pretty self-centered. He knew that he treated his family poorly—that they were the ones who suffered the most, bearing the brunt of the pain caused by his various addictions. He knew that he wasn’t the guy who remembered everyone’s name at Walgreen’s (indeed, his only memory of Walgreen’s was getting caught shoplifting and spending the night in jail). Dave knew very well that it was his own carelessness and reckless living—his casual disregard for diet, the booze, the drugs (he had sold his blood sugar monitoring equipment to buy weed)—that put him in the coma in the first place. Reading the eulogies on Facebook didn’t make Dave feel good. It made him feel guilty. One of the last things that Dave would have wanted was for his friends to be “the most Dave Maher versions of themselves they could be.”
Dave’s is a fascinating story on a number of levels. It’s a recognition of our felt need to eulogize in the face of death. Someone complimented me at my grandmother’s funeral last year saying, “That was the first funeral I’ve attended in a while where you didn’t have to lie about the deceased.” It was a comment on my grandmother’s character, obviously. But it was also an insight into funeral expectations and protocol. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. “Of the dead, say nothing but good.”
Dave’s story is also a commentary on the role social media is increasingly playing in our grieving. Social media is rapidly becoming the space where we publicly and reactively emote in the aftermath of death. One of the most sobering parts of this story is how the truth about Dave’s not dying was so easily buried by an algorithm that rewards popularity above all else. We should all shudder about the broader implications of this, I suspect.
But the most important part of the story, for me, is that it tells the truth about what it means to be a human being. Reading what people said about him when they thought he was dead held up a mirror for Dave and he didn’t like what he saw. The words didn’t fit with what Dave knew to be the truth about himself. He knew that he was a much more complicated and less admirable person than people said he was when they thought he was gone.
I’ve mentioned before that I periodically attend morning prayers with some Anglican colleagues in town. They’re currently using the old form of the Book of Common Prayer, so we’ve been praying with awkward words like “thee” and “thou” and “sware” and “beseecheth.” This morning, we prayed these words:
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders…
Like many, I cringe at phrases like, “There is no health in us” (none?! like, “zero?”) and descriptors like “miserable offenders.” I instinctively want to qualify, add nuance, soften the edges of these harsh words. But I suspect Dave might not. Dave might be ok with just sitting with them, at least for a while. We probably all should.
Nihil nisi bonum? ” Say nothing but good?” Of the dead, perhaps. But not the living. Of the living, speak the truth for the truth is what we need.