And a charity for all

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It used to be that when a loved one died, family members—in the death notice—would invite friends and relatives to honor the deceased by donating to a local charity of their choice. Or they might suggest charities that benefit the larger community such as Strong Memorial Hospital, the Memorial Art Gallery, or Foodlink.

But is all that now passé—another victim of our political wars?  

I wonder because I recently saw a Rochester obituary asking mourners to contribute in the deceased’s name to organizations that aim to “unseat right-wing” office holders.  

Peter Lovenheim

Political requests in obituaries, it turns out, may be becoming more common. In a 2015 article, the Washington Post turned up many instances from both sides of the political aisle. In death notices from around the country, mourners were requested to: donate to John Kerry’s presidential campaign; support Republicans, especially Tea Party candidates; support anyone but Hillary Clinton; donate to Democrats; support anyone running against Barack Obama.

I get that we’re living through a period of heightened political partisanship and many people want to see their favored candidates and causes supported after they’re gone, but—whether the focus is right-wing or left-wing—I find this practice a little troubling.      

Not to be lighthearted about it, but it reminds me of an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” where Larry David and his wife, Cheryl, have agreed that for their 10th anniversary they’ll renew wedding vows. But when Cheryl proposes that the new vow declare they will love each other “through all eternity,” Larry objects. “This relationship continues into the afterlife?” he asks. “I thought it was over at death!”

Maybe I was naïve to assume that political partisanship, too, ends at the grave. 

Death notices that take aim at elected officials on one side of the aisle or the other not only reflect our divided nation but they themselves can be divisive. 

What are mourners to do if they don’t happen to share the deceased’s politics? Must they dishonor their own views in order to honor the deceased’s? If they give to a cause other than the favored candidate, are their donations to be considered second-rate? Where does it end?

Would the deceased’s family disapprove if the person buried in the plot next to their loved one was discovered to have had opposite political leanings? Should we now have “Red” and “Blue” cemetery sections to be sure all can rest in peace? We can’t live in peace with each other and now, it appears, we can’t die in peace either.

But is death not the great leveler?

Speaking at American University in 1963, President John F. Kennedy noted that Russians and Americans—then bitter Cold War enemies—nevertheless all come to the same end. “Our most basic common link,” he said, “is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Must it really be our dying wish that everyone with whom we disagree be defeated?  Can we not, even at the end, muster enough humility to question the absolute correctness of our views and tolerate those who hold views different than our own? 

Many times I’ve stood at graveside and found comfort in the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes: “A time to love and a time to hate/A time for war and a time for peace.”

Even in these troubled times, I’d like to think death can be a time not for partisan hate and political war, but—if not for love—at least for peace.

If we truly desire to honor loved ones when they pass, let’s try harder to extend the hand of conciliation to all who mourn. One way is by suggesting worthy causes for donation that everyone can be glad to support. President Abraham Lincoln said it best. To paraphrase his Second Inaugural: “with malice toward none, and a charity for all.”

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author, is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. His most recent book, The Attachment Effect, was published by Penguin in 2018. He can be reached at [email protected]. This article is adapted from an earlier version that appeared in American Greatness.

20 thoughts on “And a charity for all

  1. One of my all time favorites for gravestones was the classical musician , comedian , manically depressed , and hypochondriac Oscar Levant . A regular on the Johnny Carson show , institutionalized for mental illness a number of times , and often on heavy medication , he smoked at least four packs of cigarettes a day with dozens of cups of coffee . He was probably trying to use nicotine and caffeine to counter the effects of his medications . He claimed he went to the emergency room so often with physical complaints , both real and imagined , that his wife would just tell the hospital when they called that he was a hypochondriac and hang up on them . For his epitaph on his gravestone he chose ” I told you I was sick” . With
    the greatly increased anxiety psychiatrists are documenting since this President took office , will we see a stroke victim’s gravestone read , ” I told you this President would kill me !”

  2. If the right wing has their way there will be no more non-christian charities to donate to. The right wing is waging war on the arts, education, science, the rule of law, civil rights, non christian religions, those without religion, LGBTQ americans, BIPOC americans, immigrants, Children, the poor, and American freedom in general. Due to the right wing we’re now a 3rd world nation – unable to even travel to other nations due to our status as a plague state.

    I recently had a birthday and suggested in lieu of presents that people donate to an opponent of a republican – presidential, senate, house, state, you name it. Specifically I suggested donating to the Democratic presdential nominee, and to opponents of the right wing fascist state representatives like McConnell.

    There is no more “reconciliation” with those who oppose the rule of law, support corruption, oppose civil rights for POC, LGBTQ, the poor, women and other under represented groups. The line was drawn in January when the president was impeached and the Republicans declared that their power was more important than the rule of law. That line cannot be “uncrossed”. There is no reconciliation for presidents who kowtow to a nation that puts bounties on our soldiers. There is no reconciliation for those who literally are killing elder americans in droves because they can’t wrap their heads around the idea that we have to wear masks and make small sacrifices to prevent the elder americans from catching a deadly disease that can claim their lives. Perhaps that elderly person who passed away directly blames the right for killing them because they got COVID, as have 5 of my friends and family.
    I certainly blame them. Who are you to judge their final wishes and desires. Who are you to decide that some charity is worth more than preserving the democracy that lets that charity exist or that someone’s ill informed views are worth “reconciliation”.

  3. And perhaps those mourners who have a different view from the deceased might consider that if the deceased or their relatives desire for equality and a better government outweighs their request that they donate to a charity that it just MIGHT be that they’re wrong. That their behavior is reprehensible and should be reconsidered in light of the importance the deceased and/or their family attached to that announcement. That just perhaps they are the ones in the wrong, not the deceased.

  4. Interesting, funny and relevant, thank you. For some, like this pandemic, the current president is a most feared anomaly. Some have likened his administration to the early stages of the 3rd Reich in rhetoric and alleged actions against race, democratic rule, justice, environment…). With that headwind one can understand that wishful stepping aside while the rule of law has been labeled as bashed and bent ( see comments from scientists, generals, former appointees journalists…) by the will of an ignorant tyrant.
    Can’t we all just get along is wise counsel, but some hear the Gestapo brakes squeak as they stop outside their door.

  5. How this article, written by you Peter, saddens and enrages me. The obituary you refer to is someone I have known and have highly respected… a person who served the community, inspired more kids than one can fathom, and was a supportive friend to all and was loved by so many.
    How dare you – how politically correct is it that the world pandemic has been driven By the powers that be in this country to be a political issue rather than the path of health and well being. Get real!

    • Thank you, Janet. I was just about to respond with the same comment, as I knew, loved, and admired deeply the deceased woman whose obit he referenced. She was amazing. She was fiercely devoted to making the world better for everyone. She knew she was dying and wrote her own obituary, delivering a message to us all to continue the fight long after she left us. May her memory be a blessing.

  6. I had never heard of you or your publication until today but I did know the individual whose obituary you felt called upon to critique. She was an outstanding woman of courage, conviction and compassion. She was a respected and loved educator, a mentor and friend. Thoughtful to the end, she offered some guidance to those who mourn her as to how she wished to be remembered — a donation to the cause of her choice. It was her choice, not your choice, and not so very different from any obituary suggesting donations to a cause the deceased and his or her family believe in.

    “What are mourners to do if they don’t happen to share the deceased’s politics? Must they dishonor their own views in order to honor the deceased’s?” Of course not. First of all, no one is required to make any donation at all! There are many ways to honor the deceased — a kind note, a shared meal, a memorial plant or even — get this — a donation to a charity that although not specified, you feel the the family would find meaningful. In a case such as this, if the politics aren’t your cup of tea, consider a donation to a medical research organization. I doubt very much that such a donation would be considered “second rate.”

    “Would the deceased’s family disapprove if the person buried in the plot next to their loved one was discovered to have had opposite political leanings? Should we now have ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ cemetery sections to be sure all can rest in peace?” Again, of course not. This is a totally illogical conclusion draw as an attempt to be clever and cute.

    You are correct about one thing: You shouldn’t shouldn’t be “lighthearted.”

  7. Peter-
    I was honored to count as a friend the person to whom you refer to in your article. She was a selfless champion for the good.
    And your article is, in equal parts, saddening and maddening. To be clear, I was offended by it. And I wish she were here to defend herself.
    I will patiently wait to read your obituary to see how you have improved the genre.

  8. I was just made aware of this thoughtless piece by a friend who happens to be the husband of the woman whose obituary Lovenheim has targeted. Apparently, Lovenheim actually knew her as part of his extended family, which makes it even more beastly. He may have even known that she wrote the obituary herself, which makes criticizing it inexcusable, in my opinion.

    Says the husband in his Facebook post: “He chose to write a polemic rather than a sympathy note.”

    He goes on to say that his wife “was a triplegic for two years. Her voice eventually disappeared. She only had the use of her non-dominant left hand. Her right hand suffered from Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome, which is often referred to as The Suicide’s Disease. This was IN ADDITION to her Multi-System Atrophy, a close relative of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. She could feed herself and use her left hand to communicate on her social devices. Her activities were limited to reading electronically and using a TV remote. During these two years, she read an enormous amount of revealed American history seen through the eyes of Black Americans; she watched MSNBC; she engaged in political activism through emails, Facebook posts and contributions. She voted. She was a fully engaged American citizen. She was proud of her country and protective of the oppressed. And she knew she was dying.”

    “Yet according to this writer, a dying woman is not supposed to sustain her political beliefs. She is not supposed to examine and advocate for health care for others — health care that has kept her alive; for women’s rights, for the rights of the undocumented, the rights of Black communities, for the rights of the disabled. She is simply supposed to die.”

    I am angry that your media outlet chose to post Lovenheim’s piece, though I’m angrier at the author himself. Not only is it in very poor taste, but it’s biased by his own political preferences and smacks of white privilege as well.

    • Shame, shame, shame on you Peter–You have truly managed not only to dishonor our family name, but you have also revealed your insensitivity and true character for all to see. And shame, shame, shame on you, Rochester Beacon, for providing a platform for this.

  9. This women you mention in this article was a mentor and friend despite our decades in age difference. Sitting with her and her community at the farmers market was one of my happiest places, and I would fly across the country just to be there.

    You are the jerk using her obituary to get some press and it’s disgusting. I can’t believe the paper ran this.

    She was fiercely protective of those who are oppressed and one of her last wishes were for those of us still living to continue her life‘s work. If the right was more responsible maybe it wouldn’t have ended up in her obit, but the last I checked, kids were still in cages and thousands are dying from COVID because the current administration can’t get its act together.

  10. One is left to ponder how you have the effrontery to call for comity when you have no decency yourself, neither you, Mr. Lovenheim, nor the editors who see fit to publish your work. May you live in the peace you deny the dead.

  11. I, too, knew and loved the person you are making light of, Peter. She died prematurely of a slow, cruel, agonizing rare disease and never complained, and never lost her sense of wit and perspective. While able-bodied she was a pillar in the community, reached many college students and other young people. While suffering, she still wrote and encouraged us to respect tolerance, compassion, and to improve our society, and she kept up with the news. Are you keeping up with the news or are you just taking potshots at a husband, family and hundreds of friends who’ve lost someone to a terrible illness? How cowardly. Did you think we wouldn’t know who you are talking about? Do you even care for people? Or do you just politicize death yourself?

  12. Seriously, Peter, this is just feeble writing. I am sorry my friend is gone for many reasons including the fact that it would do my heart good to hear her laugh at this. So much umbrage! So little credibility!

    Come on, people make all sorts of statements in obituaries about the cherished values of the deceased. Don’t be disingenuous. You’ve noticed this before now.

    What IS new, however, is taking aim an obituary to serve your political side of the aisle. If you were more able, you might have been able to hide your politics behind a neutral facade. As it is, your point of view—and your character—come through distinctly.

    As much as I’d like to place your writing at the bottom of a virtual birdcage, I don’t want to forget it. I’m already missing my friend so much, and your piece will help me remember her fabulous laugh.

  13. Such poor taste against someone you cared so deeply about others more than you would ever know. I don’t know who you are, but how dare you say these things about my aunt.

  14. I would try to respect your personal feelings, sir, but that you used the death of a beloved friend, colleague, and Rochester icon to editorialize on her final wishes makes you unworthy of the title of journalist.

    Your platform affords you an audience thirsty for information, some of whom still respected your point of view, and yet you chose to insult someone who is unable to respond. You have underestimated the reach of those of us who can, have, and will continue to honor our friend’s wishes.

  15. Great article, Peter. Nicely written and an important look at a national trend that should give us all pause about where we’re headed.

  16. Mr. Lovenheim, I just wanted to inform you that although I was planning to send a memorial plant in honor of my friend (whose widower, rather than finding my proposed gift “second rate” told me he could think of no better tribute), I changed my mind, and instead made a gift to Actblue.

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