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Renée Graham

Let’s speak truth of the dead

Chuck Berry performed at the Congress Theater in Chicago in 2011.
Chuck Berry performed at the Congress Theater in Chicago in 2011.Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images/File

At my father-in-law’s funeral, his grandson told the kind of story one rarely hears in a eulogy.

He recalled an explosive family conversation involving his grandfather, which was startling, since we’ve come to expect eulogies packed with lovely memories, not score settling. The grandson wanted to show how his grandfather became a better man, yet what stood out is that he allowed his granddad to be remembered as imperfect. A good man who sometimes fell short of glory in life didn’t become a saint in death.

That’s rarely the case when an admired public figure dies. This month, three revered men — poet Derek Walcott, musician Chuck Berry, and newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin — passed away. Each was iconic in his chosen field, earning its highest accolades: a Pulitzer Prize for Breslin, a Nobel Prize in Literature for Walcott, while Berry was an inaugural inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Yet as their long, accomplished lives were celebrated, largely missing were mentions of their disturbing misdeeds.

It’s not as if these objectionable acts weren’t publicly known. In 1990, numerous women filed a class-action lawsuit against Berry, accusing him of secretly videotaping them in the restroom of his Wentzville, Mo., restaurant; he would eventually settle dozens of lawsuits out of court. That same year, New York Newsday suspended Breslin for two weeks after his racist and misogynistic tirade against a Korean-American colleague who criticized one of his columns for being sexist.

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In 1982, Walcott, then a visiting professor at Harvard, was reprimanded for pressuring a student to have sex with him, then giving her a C grade when she refused. Years later, a Boston University student sued Walcott for sexual harassment. According to The New York Times, the student said Walcott told her that unless she had sex with him, he would block production of her play. That case was settled out of court.

It’s also vexing that famous men are still allowed a “boys will be boys” pass for ugly sexist behavior. Anyone who believes differently need only consider the current White House resident.

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Jimmy Breslin sat on a park bench outside his home in New York in 1991.
Jimmy Breslin sat on a park bench outside his home in New York in 1991. AP Photo/Wyatt Counts/Associated Press

One might argue that Walcott’s, Berry’s, and Breslin’s reputations shouldn’t be dragged through the mud or that their contributions to society far outweigh their transgressions. This is how comedian Dave Chappelle tried to frame the latter argument in his recent Netflix stand-up special while discussing Bill Cosby: “I heard that when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a P.A. system that Bill Cosby paid for. So, you understand what I’m saying? The point is this: He rapes, but he saves. And he saves more than he rapes. But he probably does rape.”

For the moment, let’s ignore that “rapes” and “saves” do not belong in the same sentence when discussing someone accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women for decades. Chappelle promotes the grotesque notion that heinous acts allegedly committed by one of his comedic idols should not necessarily overshadow his legendary career or philanthropic works. One can only imagine how, when Cosby dies, some will tie themselves in knots trying to blow past the allegations to instead rhapsodize about “The Cosby Show.”

We often rush heedlessly to pardon the sins of the dead. There is no such respite for their victims.

Author Derek Walcott at Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, Italy, in 2008.
Author Derek Walcott at Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, Italy, in 2008.Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images/Getty

Nothing will minimize Walcott’s elegant poetry, Breslin’s distinctive voice of the people, or Berry’s superb musicianship. Their awards, accolades, and fans won’t fade. Yet in death, lives must be evaluated in their entirety, deep flaws and all. A eulogy or obituary should not just recognize the dead. It should also portray someone recognizable to those who mourn and were affected, for better or worse, by the deceased. That is owed to both the living and dead.

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An ancient adage warns us not to speak ill of the dead. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out loud the truth about the dead, whether it’s Granddad, Grandma, or the king of rock ’n’ roll.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.