Speaking Ill of the Dead and other taboos

By Abby Eskinder Hailu

Storytime! Way back, when Cornell University was still a distant dream, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White stood on a grassy patch of what is now a corner of the Arts Quad, and they just knew. They looked down the valley at Cayuga Lake and baby Ithaca, and saw the future. White and Cornell were fully committed to building a university open to any person and offering instruction in any study. They knew it wouldn’t be an easy feat, particularly because the university wasn’t very popular in its early days. Despite the many public attacks on their endeavors, Cornell and White were fully committed. The founders struggled to get everything together in time for opening. In fact, even when the school began matriculating students, campus construction hadn’t been completely finished. Students had the option of covering their tuition costs by completing the construction of the very classrooms that they were learning in. Cornell University and its founders really rode the struggle bus for a long time, and that little grassy corner remained a symbol of their perseverance and foresight. Those difficult times made the sacred patch of grass even more special to A.D. White, especially as Ezra Cornell’s health started to fade, until Cornell’s death in 1874. 

Fifteen years later, the university started to thrive and the Board of Trustees was plopping buildings down everywhere and populating the Arts Quad. In one unfortunate instance, A.D. White was away from campus and missed an important meeting, during which the Board decided to construct a building dedicated to chemistry. The infinitely wise Board decided to put this new building, Morse Hall, on the sacred grassy patch. When A.D. White returned and saw the building, he flipped his shit. In his defense, Morse Hall was a truly mediocre and flimsy building. Students had to wear their winter coats in the classroom; their experiments would get disrupted by the wind; their watercolors would freeze before they finished their scientific drawings. But despite being so dysfunctional, Morse Hall was a place for the chemistry department to grow and have a space it truly deserved (keep in mind, Cornell was barely a university and absolutely needed a space devoted to chemistry). To add insult to injury, Morse Hall was named after Samuel Morse, the man invented the telegraph and had a rather sour working relationship with Ezra Cornell. All in all, Morse Hall was a line crossed, but it could be argued that the building was necessary. That didn’t make it hurt any less for A.D. White. Honestly, the Board was pretty messy for going directly against the wishes of an original founder.

Art by Abigail Mengesha

When people die, their legacies are granted certain courtesies. For the most part, it’s a taboo to speak ill of the dead, even if their actions in life sanction it. This isn’t necessarily a critique on Ezra Cornell’s life per se, but rather a way to justify A.D. White’s reaction to Morse Hall. Our society, in the here and now and under Western cultural hegemony, sees death as a finality. Death becomes an untouchable space that people along with their legacies enter into. This is somewhat speculative, but of course A.D. White would see Morse Hall as a disrespectful intrusion of this space. Death seems to be a border, but the spaces that it curbs are manipulable and also based on temporality. The inevitability of Ezra Cornell’s death probably helped the Board decide where to place Morse Hall, particularly when considering his overall vision for the university. Perhaps the great evil of Morse Hall lies in the fact that A.D White had not approved of it, and that it was built too soon. It seems less so that death itself is the sacred, eternally untouchable space. Instead, it can be argued that the psychological distance death brings is what allows us to put people and places on a high pedestal or gouge them out of our memories. This is probably why we don’t always think so critically about the Arts Quad and the fact that we are on stolen land. It would be wrong to talk about the sacred grassy patch on the Art’s Quad and ignore the settler colonialism that undergirds this entire conversation. Cornell’s campus is built on burial grounds of the Cayuga people (including that “sacred” grassy patch). There are very few detailed records of what life was like for the Cayuga people before and during the construction of Ithaca and Cornell University. One of the reasons for this is that the settlers would go to Cayuga lands and excavate them, in the process disrespecting and destroying important ancestral lands. They would exhume and discard the skeletal remains. Moreover, the Cayuga people were attacked by settler armies, and their lands and people were caught up in war. Even recently, the state of New York has breached treaties with the Cayuga people and has illegally acquired land. This was and continues to be violent and very tangible erasure. This callous treatment of the Cayuga people by Ithaca settlers and Cornell builders was largely enabled by the psychological distance necessary for settler colonialism. Can the sacred ground one builds over somebody else’s sacred ground ever really be sacred? It’s easier to disregard legacies when physical spaces and actions can mirror and enable that very erasure. Looking at death as a sacred space with an expiration date can enable this kind of violent erasure. The way we look at death, and its freshness, masks and enables future problematic behaviors.  

An example of this is when Karl Lagerfeld died on Feb. 19, 2019. He was a fashion designer with over 50 years in the industry under his Fendi belt. He worked with many famous couturiers and fashion houses. He also became the creative director of a struggling Chanel in 1983, making it into the power house it is today (yeah, the iconic two interlocked C’s? That was Karl Lagerfeld). He did all of this while opening his own incredibly successful eponymous, self-titled brand. This man was an icon in the fashion world—and when he died, that whole world mourned. In an increasingly connected global community, the deepest of grief can be shared online. Celebrities were quick to share their pictures with Lagerfeld and heartfelt, personal anecdotes about him. It was pretty sad. It was certainly too soon to bring up the fact that Lagerfeld was fatphobic, racist, and Islamophobic—but it was also part of his legacy. Many of the culture critics who started treading into that touchy territory of calling out Lagerfeld’s problematic behavior and actions were people of color. Critiques of his legacy ranged from respectful to I-don’t-give-a-flying-fuck, and after reading more about Lagerfeld, I struggled to fully empathize with those who were grieving. It felt as though those who were grieving so protectively did not carry Lagerfeld’s indiscretions in the same psychological proximity as they were asking others to carry his legacy. Moreover, defensive bereavement is fixated on temporality, implying that there is a proper time and place for problematic behavior to be called out. Active patience is a real thing, and it can be a very useful and dynamic way to grow. Maybe it would have been too soon, and unfair if the man had been trying to improve his behavior and combat his prejudices. Granted, Lagerfeld was born in the 1930s, and it can be argued that he was a product of his time—but he died in 2019. At the very least, he had the chance to adjust himself when ideas of religious tolerance, body positivity, and racial inclusivity became a little bit more mainstream in the past few decades (wow such concepts). It can feel like he missed his chance, and therefore doesn’t deserve the courtesy of being whitewashed in death.

So when the defensively bereaved argue that it’s too soon to criticize Lagerfeld, it becomes a demand for passive patience. In this case, Lagerfeld is not alive for us to be patient with him. More importantly, passive patience is a form of oppression. This site of reckoning for this second cousin of cancel-culture exists in a seemingly untouchable space, much like death. I think of people that use nostalgic value to justify their support of problematic people. I recently made a playlist of throwback songs we used to play on the school bus and I realized just how much of Chris Brown we listened to. It’s both cringeworthy and viscerally sad. There’s no way to go back and change things. That’s partly why it’s difficult to talk shit about the dead; it’s the only thing you can do to make the memory of their problematic behavior serve a more positive purpose. The whole point of deciding to honestly recount the legacies of the deceased is to keep these things from happening again, right? Treading into that untouchable space is difficult but necessary. Sometimes it is unavoidable, like literally walking to class on the Arts Quad after knowing what it was built on. Death surrounds us here at Cornell, and that too will be part of the university’s legacy. At the very least, moving in and experiencing these spaces should inform and produce anti-colonial praxis. Death can spill over into life. 

Let’s return to our first story. In 1916, Morse Hall burned down in a terrible fire. The blaze started from the top floor at around 6 a.m. and engulfed the whole building. Thankfully, the chemistry students were able to form a line to White Hall and save most of their apparatuses. The firefighters struggled to contain the fire because of the highly flammable and dangerous chemicals that were in the building. There were a lot of exciting explosions coming from the flames and it attracted a big crowd, even in the wee and freezing hours of the morning. The second reason why the fire was so hard to put out was because, in true Ithaca fashion, the temperature was freezing and the water couldn’t get out of the pipes. Some accounts also state that A.D. White was in the crowd cackling as the building went down. It was almost as if there was some type of spiritual intervention to ensure that Morse Hall really burned

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