Breaking Promises to the Dying and the Dead

"Bye, Marilyn...it was nice lying over you."

My Dad detested wakes and viewings, and used to say that after he died, he wanted to be exhibited sitting up, eyes open, with a tape recording that would be triggered every time anyone stood in front of him. The recording would be of my father saying, “Hello! Thanks for coming! Hope to see you at my funeral!” Luckily, Dad didn’t make me promise to do anything that bizarre, although it would not have been out of character for him to do so. His recent death caused me to wonder: what if he had? Would I be obligated to keep my promise? Would I be justified in making such a promise, if I knew it wouldn’t be kept?

What are the ethical considerations for promises made to  deceased loved ones?

A strange story that first surfaced in August raises the issue vividly. Richard Poncher, a wealthy Beverly Hill resident, had bought the crypt over Marilyn Monroe’s resting place at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park cemetery. He told his wife Elsie that he wanted to be buried directly over the famous sex-symbol, “face down.” She agreed, and he was: right after his funeral 23 years ago, Elsie told the funeral director about her husband’s fantasy, “and he turned him over,” she told reporters.

But now times are tough, and Elsie needed cash to pay off the $1.6-million mortgage on her 1 3/4 acre Beverly Hills home. She decided to move Richard so she could sell the vault to one of the many Monroe fanatics out there, saying that he got a good 23 years over the star and that would have to do. She wanted to have the house free of debt for their kids.

Is this a betrayal? A double-cross? Or is it simply responsible? Does it make any ethical difference if Elsie believes that dead is dead, and that Richard would be just as happy buried over Rin Tin Tin? What if she is certain that “Richard would have wanted it this way”?

Extravagant promises to dying loved ones often pose a true ethical conflict, defined as when opposing acts each fulfill an ethical value, but neither can achieve both.  The situation also arises when one is tempted to lie to dying friends and loved ones out of kindness. A mother and daughter are involved in a fatal car accident; the daughter is dead, the mother is dying. “Is our daughter all right?” the fading mother asks her husband. In such a case, it is reasonable and ethical to conclude that the kind answer, “Yes,” is more ethical than the truthful answer, “No.” Thus a promise to a dying loved one may be an exception to the usual rule that it is unethical to make a promise one cannot or will not fulfill.

In Larry McMurtry’s Western novel “Lonesome Dove,” Woodrow Call,an old Texas Ranger,agrees to promise his dying best friend, Gus McRae, that he will take his body all the way from Montana to bury it in a Texas grove where Gus once wooed his true love. Though Call actually keeps his promise ( and nearly dies in the process), he wasn’t ethically bound to do so. The promise, like all promises requested or demanded by the dying, was hardly freely given; it was coerced. Who can refuse a dying request, even a ridiculous, selfish or dangerous one?

Yet it seems wrong to conclude it is ethical to make false promises to the dying simply because they can’t enforce the commitment (though Richard Poncher did threaten to haunt his wife if she didn’t bury him over Marilyn!). If loved ones make reasonable promises to the dying, they should make them in good faith and with the intention of fulfilling them. If changed conditions later make a promise impractical, however, as in the dilemma faced by the comically-tortured son, played by George Segal, in the black comedy “Where’s Poppa?”, who promises his dying father that he will “never put Mother in a home” and then has to suffer as the vicious, increasingly senile woman ruins every aspect of his life, or the promise must yield to higher family priorities, as in the Poncher case, then breaking such promises is reasonable, fair and ethical. If the idea that “he would have wanted it this way” relieves guilt, that’s fine; it’s a rationalization, but it is a good use of one. Obviously, there is no way to know what the deceased would have wanted. It is just easier to presume that he or she would agree with the decision to let the promise expire.

Promises openly and freely made on the sole initiative of a dying individual’s loved one are true commitments. Promises coerced by a dying friend or relative and made out of kindness or guilt, on the other hand, should be re-evaluated at a less emotion-charged time. Both varieties of death-bed promises, however, create ethical obligations. They just can’t be as strong as the obligations created by promises to the living.

For in ethics, life comes first.  It is always ethical to violate promises to the dead in the interests of the living.

5 thoughts on “Breaking Promises to the Dying and the Dead

  1. I’ve always been a fan of the deathbed promises that the dying know will have positive outcomes if fulfilled. I might say “Bury me in my favorite blue blazer that’s up in the attic” knowing that if my request is fulfilled, the person doing so will find $10k in the pocket.

    I also think that someone’s requests might be more beneficial to the bereaved – in accomplishing the one last wish, they feel comfort that the deceased is resting peacefully.

    However, life-long burdens that don’t enrich or improve the lives of the living don’t carry much weight with me. (But then, what if George Segal’s character inherited a family fortune by completing this deathbed task…) Brewster’s Millions was a great film for the purpose of ridiculous death bed requests. (And many others…)

    In summary, I’ll assume deathbed requests are a test of Faith. You do what you can, and there’s no ethical penalty if it’s too much to bear.

  2. Pingback: The Ethics of Voluntary Mortgage Default « Ethics Alarms

  3. My boyfriend refused to marry after 8 years , because he made a promise to his dead mother. Its not a death bed promise , but he seems to be more sincere to it than ever , and I am so heart broken. Thank you so much for posting this. I hardly thought I could find anything on the net.

    • Dear madam,
      I’m French journalist for Paris-based publications.
      I would like to get in touch with you for an article in which I would like to tell your story. Is there a mail on which I could contact you ?

  4. Once a love one is gone and they get into heaven, I’ve heard they no longer know what it feels like to worry, be sad and I am sure that his spirit is hoping you will do what you need to now for you.

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