Public speaking is not among humankind’s favourite activities. The minority who are polished, assured or supreme orators naturally revel in the opportunity, but for the rest it is a vexing obligation to be discharged at any of the many rituals that humans observe.
In this year of pandemic, speeches, eulogies and tributes at funerals and memorial services will have been far too numerous: almost 1.4 million people have died from Covid-19. Love, affection, respect, admiration, nostalgia, anecdote, humour and sadness are the key notes of such occasions of communal remembrance.
Among the best reflections on funeral orations are those of Pericles, the Athenian statesman and general of the 5th century BCE. His speech at the annual public funeral for those who died defending the city in the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 BCE) against Sparta is filled with wisdom about what is appropriate at such times and an eloquent demonstration of rhetorical theory in practice. It is also among the handful of most famous funeral speeches in history.
The speech that has come down to us is recorded in the Greek historian Thucydides’ magisterial work, The Peloponnesian War, published by an unknown hand from the unfinished manuscript that Thucydides left at his death in 400 BCE. There have been millennia of debate about the reconstruction and accuracy of the speech, but it is very much of the fabric of the known historical Pericles. Here are two snippets, from Rex Warner’s translation.
“As for those of you here who are sons or brothers of the dead, I can see a hard struggle in front of you. Everyone always speaks well of the dead, and, even if you rise to the greatest heights of heroism, it will be a hard thing for you to get the reputation of having come near, let alone equalled, their standard. When one is alive, one is always liable to the jealousy of one’s competitors, but when one is out of the way, the honour one receives is sincere and unchallenged.”
“But the man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”
The occasion to pay homage to and bury an eminent person can be a grand state affair or a simpler private one. Rarely is the sendoff for a personage laced with innuendo to advance a particular cause or to challenge the narrative around the deceased’s demise. But two stand out in these respects: Mark Antony’s oration at the burial of Julius Caesar and the speech by Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer, at the funeral service for his sister Diana, Princess of Wales.
Antony’s speech is seared into the mind by the version crafted by William Shakespeare in his tragedy Julius Caesar. So, while being among the best-known speeches in the English language, it is even more moot than Pericles’ speech that what we have even approximates what Antony said that day in Rome in 44 BCE. What Shakespeare did was to take three sources, the Greek biographer Plutarch’s Lives of Caesar, Marcus Brutus and Antony, and to give words to what Plutarch describes and hints at. It is brilliant extrapolation, and it enables Shakespeare to show Antony working up popular sentiment against Brutus. A few examples will suffice.
“He was my friend, faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man…
“When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man…
“I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.”
Earl Spencer’s speech delivered a grievous blow to the Windsors, Diana’s in-laws. Although it is true, as The Guardian newspaper’s report of the day said, that “his address contained elements of disingenuousness bordering on mendacity”, it is equally true that “this was a brilliantly crafted oration”. (The Guardian, 8 September 1997) Here is a sampling.
“I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling.
“My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this: a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.”
Spencer directly addressed Diana and the young princes William and Harry, on behalf of the Spencer family (“your blood family”). What he said has come partly to fruition, with the departure of Harry and his wife Meghan from the bosom of the Windsors and from royal duties.
“And beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative and loving way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men, so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition, but can sing openly as you planned.”
‘He died beloved’
A significant birth, rather than a death, will be celebrated on 28 November 2020: the bicentenary of the birth of Friedrich Engels. It was to Engels that the funeral oration for Karl Marx fell, on 17 March 1883. The two had first met in Paris in August 1844.
At Highgate Cemetery in London on that late winter’s day, Engels spoke to 10 – yes, 10 – fellow mourners. Much of what he said seemed unlikely and implausible but over the course of the next 137 years has proved true.
“For Marx was before all else a revolutionist … Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival …
“And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers – from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America …
“His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work!”