Whenever death occurs, it is standard for anyone associated with the deceased to pay their respects to the individual. This often includes remembering the deceased individual’s redeeming qualities and accomplishments during their lifetime.
But what happens when the deceased is seen as a villain, notorious for causing pain and suffering to so many people?
This question will undoubtedly be discussed frequently the next couple of days. Fred Phelps, the founder of one of the most controversial churches in the world, the Westboro Baptist Church, passed away at the age of 84 in Kansas late Wednesday night. His death comes merely days after one of his estranged children posted on Facebook (on March 15) that Phelps was “on the edge of death.”
The Westboro Baptist Church was founded by Fred Phelps in 1955. Over the years the group, based in Topeka, Kansas, has become infamous for their anti-gay propaganda and picketing of funerals.
Now that Phelps has passed, the question of how we should respond remains. Responses to Phelps’ death are just beginning to come in due to it being barely 24 hours since his passing. Sarah Plake of WIBW 13, a news station in Topeka, has already begun trying to gage the reaction locally (see here). Some people have tried to respond positively, making light of a bad situation. Plake gives an example of this through her interview with Davis Hammet, a member of the local tolerance group Planting Peace:
“We’re all saddened by [Fred’s] passing. It’s another human life gone, he’s a family man and it’s unfortunate. Although we have stark disagreements with the foundations of WBC, it’s still unfortunate that they lost a loved one.”
Hammet said the best reaction to Phelps’ death is love.
“Even if we have disagreements we have to get over it and see the higher purpose of respecting each other.”
Hammet is a great example of someone who, while acknowledging the controversial being that Phelps was, still is trying to be respectful out of the goodness of his heart.
The other responses out there could not be further from Hammet’s respectful attitude. Plake also brings these perspectives to light:
Topeka resident Linda Bierley brought pins that displayed an X’d out “Fred” on them to pass out.
“Fred has been around for a long time and he has just been such an evil-spirited man and caused so much harm and pain to families that didn’t deserve it.”
As you can see, so far the American public is struggling with the right way to react to Fred Phelps’ death. While many feel a celebration is in order, others want to still remain respectful to the deceased. Perhaps Mayor of Topeka Larry Wolgast can provide us with insight on the proper way to respond. In a statement released on Thursday, Wolgast says:
I believe we should respect the Phelps family’s right to mourn their loss at this time. Topeka is a strong and vibrant city that will continue to move forward, past destructive hate and intolerance, as a city of compassion and acceptance. We must continue to respect and value each individual.
I really think Wolgast is onto something here. While the Mayor acknowledges the powerful hate shown by the late Phelps, he also reminds everyone to respect the Phelps family’s right to mourn him.
Wednesday night marks the passing of an influential human being, for better or for worse, to American history. No matter how you feel about Fred Phelps, be sure to remember that this is a human being, no matter how good or bad, that has passed away. As long as you keep this in mind, you can react however you wish.