It's wrong to define a private life by the way we handle news of its death

MY OFFICE is situated in the heart of South Philly, between three funeral homes. Just this morning, I saw a coffin being placed into a hearse with black-clad mourners waiting in patient silence on the sidewalk. That is respect.

But there are moments when we lose sight of our better angels and treat certain deaths as fodder for the gossip rags and cable trash bins of Nancy Grace and company.

That happened this week when, to my dismay, the big news after Memorial Day was that Chuck Peruto's "girlfriend" had died.

I know who Peruto is. Every Philadelphian does. His father was a great man, a lawyer's lawyer who held a well-deserved reputation for excelling at difficult, high-profile cases. Peruto senior was not the kind of attorney I ever wanted to be (defend criminals? No thanks) but I admired him as the dean of the desperate.

As far as the son is concerned, I don't have an opinion on his skills. I do, however, have an opinion on the way his association with the death of a young woman has been turned into a carnival.

Neither this paper nor its sister should have made Julia Papazian Law's death front-page news. They should not have looked up her Facebook pages to get some "insight" into her deepest thoughts. They should not have splashed her lovely photos on the cover, should not have acted as if the Peruto law firm were the people who knew her best (and therefore had the best insight into her motives), should not have ignored the desires of her family to treat this matter with sobriety and the consideration that a death is due.

This woman was not a public person. The fact that the last few weeks of her life were spent dating a man almost three decades her senior, and that this man is, in fact, a public person, should not have turned her death into a sideshow.

It's no surprise that Law's family requested that the law firm stay away from her funeral. They didn't want the media vultures to be hovering at their final farewell, a leave-taking that most private citizens have the luxury to conduct in privacy.

What amazes me is that journalists have allowed Law's death to define her life, and that both of them are inextricably associated with a man that she really only knew for a hiccup of time. According to reports, the young paralegal, who would have turned 27 this week, started dating her boss (hmmm) only in April. While I am sure that some of us consider six weeks to be a lifetime of devotion in a world where some hook-ups rarely last the night, it really shouldn't have been enough to frame this death in a Peruto context.

Yes, I understand that this is the kind of story that sells. When it popped up on philly.com late on Monday, the newspaper gods must have smiled at the gift. A slow news day had become a lot racier.

And that's the problem. I didn't know Julia Papazian Law. I never heard of her before this weekend. That's the point. The only reason I know about her now, and the only reason that she is the subject of my column, is because the newsies in this city decided that her death was good for Internet traffic.

This is an incredibly sad commentary on how we treat tragedies these days. Memorial Day was a lovely exception to the general rule that we exploit death instead of honoring it. I was happy to see that the sacrifice of our soldiers was remembered with grace and dignity, that prayers were said and ceremonies held in respectful silence.

The mournful notes of a lone bugle formed a symphony of grief on so many battlefields.

That, I thought, is how death should be handled.

Of course, Julia Papazian Law was not a soldier who had made the ultimate sacrifice for her country. Her death was questionable, both in terms of its circumstance and its aftermath. We owed her no gratitude and no somber eulogies. We were entitled to some passing sense of "Whoa, what happened there?"

And yet, we owed her a great deal more than she ultimately received. Instead of talking about her last six weeks of life as if they were the only thing newsworthy, we should have simply allowed that death to be reported in a small corner of the obituaries. Her pretty face could have appeared above a memoriam from family members and friends who loved and knew her best.

Instead, klieg lights and tearful confessions.

So here are some words of grace for her from Khalil Gibran:

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.

And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.

And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

 


Christine Flowers is a lawyer.

Email: cflowers1961@gmail.com