Richard Herring: Death makes twits of us all
Friday 21 Mar 2014
My current tour show is all about death. It’s a controversial subject to try and joke about but I think we need to talk about it more. Because if we did we’d probably find it easier to cope with something that is, after all, 100 per cent inevitablefor everyone.
Instead, we clam up and get embarrassed, worried we’ll say the wrong thing. Or just spout platitudes. But the platitudes are often more offensive than saying nothing.
The one I hate is when a young man dies, who hasn’t got married and has no children, people will often say, as if this is reassuring: ‘Well, at least he didn’t have kids.’ What a horrible thing to say. You could argue our whole purpose in life is to procreate, it’s our genetic imperative to pass on our DNA to the next generation. If you die childless, then you are a full-stop at the end of a sentence of continuous successful shagging that goes right back to the first amoeba. Every one of your ancestors has managed it for the last three billion years, but you’ve let them down.
Saying ‘At least he didn’t have kids’ is like commenting: ‘At least he didn’t pass on his DNA. Let’s look on the bright side, there’ll be no one like him in the future. Let’s take some comfort from the fact that his reign of terror is now over.’ So you’d think that going up to a young widowed mother at a funeral and saying: ‘It is sad about your husband but at least he had kids’ would therefore be the right thing to do. But believe me, if anything, it’s even worse.
I find the way that social media responds to death and disaster mainly bewildering. If a celebrity dies, it now feels that everyone has to write a post about it, even if they have nothing original to say. It’s like we’re all the prime minister of our own little country and the world would be shocked and appalled if we didn’t make some kind of statement.
The one that particularly galls me is when a famous person dies and people will head straight to Facebook or Twitter to write: ‘I have no words.’ Firstly, they don’t seem to realise that ‘I’, ‘have’, ‘no’ and ‘words’ are all words and thus they clearly do have some words. But secondly, if you actually have no words then that’s not a problem. You don’t have to say anything. Maybe take some time, have a think and wait until you do have some words and then pass comment. No one is waiting for your eulogy. Especially when we’re all equally sad and shocked by what’s happened.
Maybe only post if you have something unbelievable or surprising to say, like: ‘I didn’t think Nelson Mandela was all that, to be honest.’
‘I have no words’ reads like: ‘I feel I should say something about this but I can’t be bothered working out what it is.’ Silence can be respectful. In many ways, not saying anything is the most respectful thing. You’re on social media. No one is expecting you to comment immediately. No one minds if you don’t comment at all. But if you want to comment and are going to say something clichéd and trite then it might as well be: ‘Bugger, this is really, really sad.’ Those are perfectly good words. That you have. And you know you have. Because if you’re really that upset about something, then your first thought isn’t: ‘Blimey, I really must let social media know about how speechless I am.’