A Short Primer In How to Handle the Deaths of Public Figures

Win Mcnamee/PoolPrensa via ZUMA

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

It is times like this that make me hate social media more than usual. However, better to light a candle than curse the darkness, right? So here’s how the ordinary world works, folks:

  • When someone dies who is not Idi Amin or Adolph Hitler, it is customary in public venues to be at least minimally respectful toward their memory—or to shut up and say nothing—for a few days.
  • This is because their family and friends are in mourning, and they deserve a bit of time for their grief.
  • Obituaries will generally mention all aspects of a person’s life, good and bad, and this has been the case with George H.W. Bush. However, the fact that an obituary is not sufficiently savage on a particular point that especially irks you is not a good excuse to write a 50-part tweetstorm educating all the rest of us.
  • Just generally, being critical upon someone’s death is OK. Really! Being brutal generally isn’t.
  • After a few days or a week, feel free to say anything you want.

That’s about it. Easy, isn’t it? This is considered common courtesy, and does not mean that (a) nobody is ever allowed to say anything bad about the establishment, or (b) everyone has forgotten what a bad person this was. It just means that out of respect for a grieving family, we lower the howitzers for a few days.

I hope this primer has been helpful for those of you who need it.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend