Tuesday 27 Sep 2016

Deathbed Confession
David Simmonds

There’s a joke that is often told to lawyers in order to irritate them. It goes like this. The client lends money to the lawyer, and then dies before the money is repaid. The lawyer, overcome by remorse at the unpaid debt, tucks a cheque into the suit pocket of the deceased client, knowing he will be buried with it.

The moral: a lawyer’s conscience isn’t very deep. The other moral, I was reminded by an article I came across recently, is that postponing making something right until after a person dies can be a pretty empty gesture. The article deals with confessions.

When we think of confessions, we usually think of deathbed confessions, which are rife with intrigue. A quick search has deathbed confessions establishing that Lyndon Johnson and the CIA orchestrated the Kennedy assassination; that George Bush Sr. is the son of a German Nazi; that a Mafia hit man owned up to ‘whacking’ Jimmy Hoffa; that there really was a UFO crash, at Roswell in 1947; that the infamous photo of the famous Loch Ness Monster was staged by a person who was angry he had been fooled himself. The fascination with the deathbed confession, I suppose, is not, well, probably not, tainted more than a desire to clear one’s conscience, and is therefore more likely to be true.

But the confession that caught my attention was one by a 59-year-old Utah man, who uttered it not on his deathbed, but in his own death notice. Val Patterson, speaking in the first person, admitted to obtaining a PhD degree from the University of Utah that he didn’t earn and stealing a safe from the Motor View Drive Inn in June, 1971.

The death notice itself is obviously written from the heart, and expresses deep regret to his wife over also stealing their future happiness from her as a result of his smoking, he died from throat cancer. So it is hard - unless perhaps you are the proprietor of the Motor View Drive Inn - not to react with sympathy for another human who at least had the courage to face up to his own moral frailty.

On reflection, let’s face it, a person who uses his own obituary to confess his misdeeds is choosing the easy way out, no pun intended. How much credit should go to a confessor who is tucked six feet under and speaks from the safety of the grave? How better many opportunities to do the right thing did he pass up in his lifetime?

The Talmud, I am told, speaks about the need for proper confession before witnesses, which seems to be a much more worthy proposition. To admit to wrongdoing, in my book, involves facing the consequences just as much as it does clearing the conscience. Asking for and receiving forgiveness is a two-sided proposition. Conscience-clearing alone, when compared to the alternatives, is self-indulgent.

I certainly hope the posthumous confession doesn’t become a newest trend. Will there now be a race for the moral superiority of having given the most exhaustive obituary confession possible? Will mighty captains of industry now add to their already lengthy obituaries an admission to skipping Sunday school class to go out for a smoke with their pals, so that people might be tempted to say: “Oh that man must have been a saint, given how picayune the deeds he confessed to were”!

Besides, I kind of like mourning the way it is at the moment - we try to remember something good from those who have passed on before us, rather than to see it as the opportunity to wash a lifetime’s dirty laundry.

If we sanction the whole scale posthumous confession, imagine what will follow. People will think: “Well, if I’m going to confess my shortcomings, I might as well do it now because I don’t know how and when I might be sent to my maker. And I suppose if this thing is going to be put on YouTube, then it’d better have good production values, so I’ll get a service to do it. But then I’d better ensure that they are sworn to secrecy and that the film doesn’t leak out until I’m gone. How I know they won’t use it to blackmail me, or take it to the police?”

In due course, an industry of secure videography will develop. Lawyers will start arguing cases about whether interactions between client and videographer, like those between client and lawyer, and penitent and priest, are privileged. And, being lawyers, they won’t be accepting any cheque that can’t be cashed immediately. 

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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