THE BLOG
01/15/2009 09:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

(Posthumous) Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Given its obvious drawbacks, there aren't many good things to say about death.

Sure, it's quiet, and you're unlikely to be bothered anymore by spam emails and robo-calls from telemarketers. But, admittedly, perhaps the only real comfort of the grave has been the secrets you were allowed to carry to it. Especially if you happened to be rich, famous, or both.

Not anymore. I just read about the upcoming publication of a "sizzling" new novel, a roman a clef depicting in fictional terms the sexual relationship between John F. Kennedy and the actress Angie Dickinson. Not that the late president's extramarital affairs--most famously with Marilyn Monroe
---haven't been well-documented in previous nonfiction books, from hastily-published muck-rakers to such deservedly-praised histories as Richard Reeves' President Kennedy.

Of course, JFK's famous widow hasn't fared much better, her death spawning its own set of gossipy memoirs. Or worse. Not long ago, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' former priest broke his 40-year pastoral silence to disclose the details of her private talks with him after her husband's assassination.

This brings to mind a story that hit the Internet right about that same time concerning the late Dr. Robert Atkins, whose popular diet took a huge bite out of the profits of bakeries, pizza parlors, and other purveyors of high-carb delights. It seems a group of pro-vegetarian physicians had obtained copies of Atkins' medical records and released them to the press. Apparently, the happily-carnivorous diet guru's health was less than optimum for some years before his death.

Health issues aside, what I find alarming about all the above is the increasingly common practice of violating the privacy of the departed. In a parade of tell-all books, ostensibly scholarly biographies and TV show "exclusives," people are rushing to reveal the intimate details of the lives of (usually) famous friends and relatives who are no longer around to defend themselves. So much for the sanctity---let alone the silence---of the tomb.

After all, it's one thing---in the name of science, of course---to actually exhume the remains of late presidents and kings to establish cause of death, or confirm that they fathered children with their slaves, or even, as in the case of certain infamous dictators, merely to assure ourselves that they're still dead.

But I'm talking about something else. It's as though we're in some new Age of Postmortem Debunking, a kind of sociological frenzy of hero-bashing that reflects our doubts about altruistic or intellectual integrity. Or, perhaps more to the point, confirms our cynicism.

How else to explain the spate of less-than-flattering portraits of formerly Great Men and Women that seem to be appearing weekly? In the past ten years or so, even such usually untouchable stalwarts as Albert Einstein, Abe Lincoln, Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi have taken a drubbing.

(Not to mention a recent "expose" of the lies and hypocrisies of famed psychologist and pediatric expert Dr. Bruno Bettelheim---written by an author whose brother, as a child, died while under Bettelheim's care. No conflict of interest there!)

Lately, it's a truism that privacy is under attack. From identity theft to "profiling" airline passengers;
from the obvious inequities of the Patriot Act to the selling of personal information data-bases. But at least those of us troubled by these developments can complain about them. We can write our elected officials. Post outraged comments on our blogs. Harrass radio talk show hosts.

Alas, these options are unavailable posthumously.

Perhaps it's just the therapist in me, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea of confidentiality expiring just because the person in question has. I can't help thinking of an interview I saw with noted psychologist Carl Jung, filmed shortly before his own death, as he politely but firmly refused to divulge the details of a painful dream that Sigmund Freud had disclosed to him. In exasperation, the interviewer finally said, "What difference can it make? He's dead." To which Jung replied, "Because it was told me in confidence."

Bad television, maybe. An anecdote without a punch-line. Plus the fact that Jung---himself fodder for a number of recent idol-smashing biographies---was apparently something less than a paragon of integrity in either his personal or professional life. But in this moment he shone, merely by keeping silent.

For the rest of us, still above ground, not a bad model to emulate.