“Don’t speak ill of the dead” – Cilla Black, Amy Winehouse and the pleasantries of death

Cilla Black

The death of Cilla Black earlier this year led to an outpouring of grief on Merseyside and beyond

With the dust having settled on the death of Cilla, Getintothis’ Gary Lambert considers the cause and effect of communal grief, celebrity culture – and whether death should force a change of opinion.

As the human species grows older and wiser, you would expect to get further away from the superstitions of old. After all, are you bothered about the effects of stepping on a crack or seeing a magpie? If you are, you are in an increasingly small minority.

However such a superstition “don’t speak ill of the dead” has taken on a far greater position in society. Rather than the fear of a haunting however, we are now afraid of the living who will castigate you for being cold, callous, heartless or mean for having a negative opinion about someone which is kept after they have slipped off this mortal coil.

The question I ask is this: why is it so important that we keep to the pleasantries of death?

I am an atheist but that doesn’t mean I have the freedom to do and say as I like because I do not believe in an omnipotent being deciding my fate. Instead it means that I am the judge of what I will say and do on the basis of my own free will. If I think you are a wonderful person I will say so whether you are living or we are talking about memories of you.

I am not going to hold my tongue if you are no longer living purely because you are no longer living. Why should I? I am not a liar or a phoney. Similarly I do not believe that it is a sin to criticise a person who has died. In 2015 (I can’t remember when and I’m not bothered enough to check) we saw an outpouring of grief because of the death of proud scouser Cilla Black at her home in southern Spain. It could have been at her home in southern England. She would have needed a home in Liverpool for it to have happened in her “beloved” city.

You do not stop disliking or hating someone and all they stand for just because they have stopped breathing. The Red Army did not arrive in Berlin to hear about the death of Hitler and think “if only I had got to give him a hug”. Now I can hear the people going “but that’s Hitler”.

It does not matter though!

To be honest if I thought someone was going to haunt me I would rather it be a sixties singer and later television personality than the leader of The Third Reich. “Our” Cilla’s spooking skills would be found lacking in that game of Top Trumps.

In the perfect storm that is post-Diana Britain where grief became a competition; and a post-social media world where extreme viewpoints regardless of the subject matter are supposed to show how much a topic means to you, we witnessed a torrent of Cilla love. For example “I can’t stop crying since I heard about Cilla, I loved Blind Date growing up”. Really?

A love of early evening bubblegum for your eyes presented by a person you never met is so strong that it makes you feel hysterical?

There is one of two options here.

Firstly, and I hope this is the case, you are trying to compete for Likes, Comments and Shares through sympathy as though your train journey through the suburbs will generate greater significance if your mobile is tingling with notifications.

The second scenario is that you need help as there are other matters which are upsetting you, but you are afraid to confront them so transfer them. Seek help. Therapy is brilliant when it works and you will find life genuinely more enjoyable if you are not being upset by matters which should be inconsequential to you.

For these tortured souls though there is something even more sickening than the death of a celebrity. It is the people like me. The ghoulish, the heartless,and the damned who say “so what” or indulge in a bit of gallows humour about death or even continue with their previously stated opinion on a person. At least we have opinions on people beyond “aren’t they nice/pretty/wealthy”.

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It is strange too what an untimely, or well publicised, death can do for someone’s record sales. What makes a person think “well look who has died… QUICK TO ITUNES!!!”. In the aftermath of her death Cilla Black’s best of rode high in the charts, proving that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Unless the word Yewtree is involved in which case you can’t even sell those albums on eBay – The Place Where People Buy Anything.

This is not just a short term boost for a week or two either at times. The death of Amy Winehouse resulted in her selling 1.7 million copies of Frank and Back To Black over the next year. And then there is The King of Pop… In the five years prior to his death he sold a total of 3.9 million records; in the five years after his death he sold 13.2 million records. I understand that there is a certain element of marketing from death as radio stations play songs by the artist to show how much they care (I’ve got a headache from how much my eyes rolled then), but if it was just marketing then we would see living artists scoring big when they get married etc..

Death is the trump card. And mark my words some day soon we are going to see a pop idol fake their death to get their royalties cranked right up. And imagine the “sorry, I’m alive, I just couldn’t cope at that time” tour! The ticket sales would make The Rolling Stones look like Half Man Half Biscuit.

The sycophants in the media get my blood boiling too. Particularly in the field of regional markets where everybody becomes a caricature of a time that has never actually existed. People didn’t leave their doors unlocked because everything was safe in the fifties, generally people were so poor there was nothing worth stealing.

I love football, but football, and Sky Sports in particular, loves a good memorial. I have in my lifetime been part of minute silences for football disasters, former footballers, former chairmen and notable local deaths
(the legacy of the Iraq-Afghanistan war for me was having a minute’s silence almost every week at Goodison Park around 2008 when we seemed to have a different inhabitant of our city come home with a flag over their coffin constantly).

However, in addition to that I have had to do a minute’s silence for former members of royalty, a religious leader, several TV commentators, acts of terror overseas, disasters overseas. Now really are the families of these people uplifted by 30,000 people being quiet? No, they probably don’t even know about it. And why would they be arsed? Yet the disgust that would be issued publicly if such silences were not held, the points scoring that would be made from those who did silence (yes, I’ve made it into a verb) and the loss of those big emotional money shots on Goals on Sunday make it not worth it. But consequently they diminish the value of a minute’s silence as people often have to ask who it is for. If it isn’t obvious, it is probably unnecessary.

This is not a criticism of showing respect or a rant against celebrity, but rather a beseeching to actually think about when and where rather than treat memorials like a 1970s Martini (anytime, any place, anywhere for all you youngsters).

And I do not criticise people for how they look or their wealth, but rather what they do with these flashes of fortune. If they choose to do right by the rest of the world then that is enough for me. However if they choose not to assist others then I will castigate them.

If, for example, they gain wealth and success in part from being from my city and constantly use this city and, let’s say, its football teams to show how much of a person of the people they are, I would not expect them to be celebrated if they do not live here or return here on a regular basis or use their wealth to improve opportunities in the city. To me, their connection to my city is tarnished. And in my eyes they are banished from the love I have for my city and its inhabitants.

This isn’t just reserved for Cilla I hasten to add, but for a variety of people who have different accents depending what TV show they are on as a Merseyside accent wouldn’t be suitable for QI or write stories about how everybody is a thieving scally with a smile and a lovely mum and tarnish the impression people have of this city for decades.

I suppose when they die I will have to pretend to like them too. The next time a celebrity dies Google their name and ‘hate’ so that we can all name and shame the phoneys who provide the cut-and-paste eulogies.