Fred Phelps – Celebration in Death?

James Gallagher

Jonathan Pizarro offers the opposing side to this argument in ‘Fred Phelps – Respect in Death?


There is but one guarantee in life; whenever a divisive figure dies, a swarm of commentators will swoop in with their opinions to feast upon the carcass while, in the same hypocritical breath, frantically rushing to tell us that we mustn’t celebrate the individual’s death, lest we “stoop to their level”, “give them satisfaction” or grant their views “credibility”.

Bizarrely enough, when a universally detested person “cashes in one’s chips” so to speak, the enthusiasm of the commentariat to clamber upon their moral high horse and condemn those who choose to celebrate the death goes into overdrive. Through what appears to be a perverse desire to seem more thoughtful and considered than everyone else, countless commentators tell us – often without shame, and in no uncertain terms – that to celebrate said death makes you “just as bad” as the individual who has died.

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In the case of Fred Phelps, the founder of the abhorrent Westboro Baptist Church who died on Thursday, my initial reaction to the news was one of jubilation. The late Christopher Hitchens – a man who was the subject of much hateful commentary from the religious right in the wake of his death, a reaction that would’ve no doubt greatly pleased him – put it best when he said, in reference to the demise of televangelist, pastor and charlatan Jerry Falwell, that it was “a shame there isn’t a Hell for him to go to”. It’s a great quip that sums up my feelings towards Mr Phelps rather brilliantly and, though it might seem crass, I absolutely stand by my initial reaction to the man’s long-awaited death.

Does this make me a bad person? Perhaps, but let’s look at the facts for a moment; Phelps was a vulgar man who made a career out of hate, simple as that. I feel not a shred of sympathy for the man’s relatives, for most of them will feel honoured to continue his “work” with fervour, and I have little desire to refer to him as a “tragic soul”. I won’t pray for him, for I am not religious, nor will I take a single moment to mourn his passing. I also, however, won’t celebrate his death, though I can’t blame or berate anyone who chooses to do so.

This, I think, is where things start to get complicated. The internet has been awash with people telling you that celebrating death makes you “no better” than the person who has died. To take pleasure in Phelps’ passing, we are told, is to stand for the same ideals as he did. To picket his funeral is to reduce oneself to his level, and so on and so forth. This, for me, is a moot point. If anyone tells you that you’re on the same level as Phelps, ask yourself a few simple questions; are you homophobic? Are you racist, sexist, transphobic or anti-Semitic? Do you take pleasure in the tragic suicides of LGBT teenagers? Do you wish 33,000 had died in the Virginia Tech massacre, rather than just 33? If the answer to all – or even just one – of these questions is “no” then, whether you celebrate his death or not, you’re a far better person than Phelps ever was.

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Of course it’s always worth maintaining “dignity in opposition”, but this doesn’t preclude you from either protest or celebration. To take pleasure in the death of a hateful man is not to demonstrate one’s own intolerance, for the idea that one can be intolerant of intolerance strikes me as ludicrous, not least because it grants organisations like the Westboro Baptist Church (or the KKK, the National Front or any other hate group) a shield to hide behind. “Dignity in opposition” absolutely can involve protests / celebrations that don’t include the type of vulgar rowdiness for which the WBC is now infamous. Of course I think attending with a “God hates Fred” sign in tow is ridiculous, though if this is how you wish to celebrate Phelps’ death then so be it because, just as people grieve in their own manner, so too do people celebrate.

In essence, the point is this; you don’t have to celebrate Phelps’ death – that’s your prerogative – but can we all please stop with the condemnation of those who wish to? For swathes of people across the planet, Phelps is the most extreme physical representation of the torment that they have endured. For these people, his death is nothing to mourn. I also can’t subscribe to the notion that one shouldn’t “take pleasure” in death because Phelps’ death means that there is one less monster to demonise LGBT people / women / Jews / Muslims / anyone who isn’t a member of the WBC in this World. That pleases me. I’m not giddy with excitement that the man is dead, though I’m also not remotely sad. He was a vicious, hateful individual whose death makes the planet just that little bit better.

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So celebrate if you want to. It doesn’t make you a terrible person, it doesn’t make you like Phelps, and it definitely doesn’t have to be undignified. If you do picket the funeral, why not turn your back on the procession? Hold hands with your partner or set up an advice stall for LGBT teenagers to attend. Have a drink to see the fucker off, maybe pray to your God asking him / her not to make him too comfortable in his new surroundings and, most importantly, don’t be ashamed to feel at least some sense of happiness to see the back of him.

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud

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