Speaking ill of the dead

By | 2013/04/09

De mortuis nil nisi bonum

DeadAs children, we’re taught an old saying, “de mortuis nil nisi bonum”, or translated, “of the dead, nothing unless good”. The common phrase of course in English is “Don’t speak ill of the dead”.

While there’s no firmly understood origin of the original purpose of the phrase, it could be readily interpreted to indicate a respect for the relatives still living, or perhaps a caution against somehow ruining the person’s journey to the afterlife by making defects known.

Whenever a celebrity or a famous person dies, this debate gets reignited with vigour. There will be those who sing the praise of the person who died, there will be those who speak with strong invective, and there will be those who feverishly report on both sides.

In short order after Margaret Thatcher died, for instance, Twitter was abuzz with people on all sides of the fence, and somewhat humorously, this graphic was posted very quickly:

What twitter will look like on the day that Thatcher dies

What twitter will look like on the day that Thatcher dies

It’s fair to say that we live in an information age. Some argue (and I agree) that the prevalence of information is as big a revolution, if not bigger, in human history, as were the bronze, iron and industrial ages. Each build on the other, yet cumulatively each has greater effect than the previous.

For many of us, two of the central tenets of the information age are:

  • Accuracy – the information available is correct;
  • Completeness – the information is not censored, or otherwise incomplete.

That’s directly at odds with “speak no ill of the dead”; when carried through to its extreme conclusion, it acts as censorship, as revisionist history. It leads to ridiculous situations, such as the near-worship of Mother Teresa, who may have performed great acts of charity, but was in other areas an entirely odious and bigoted individual. Or it leads to politicians insisting that unsavoury aspects of a nation’s history, rather than being taught and used as a lesson to avoid in the future, are hidden and downplayed – thereby inviting the errors of the past to reoccur. Or using a non-religious celebrity, when played to its logical conclusion, it would suggest that police should never have investigated Jimmy Saville after his death, for it would be speaking ill of him.

Yet, those who rail so utterly and completely against someone after their death, refusing to discuss or acknowledge any good that came of their actions, are being equally biased, and will likely end up sounding like some histrionic extremist frothing at the mouth.

Unfortunately, those stuck in the middle simply trying to provide information that tells another opinion to those flooding the aether with their vitriol or praise, often get tarred with the opposing brush, merely for trying to bring balance.

We owe it to ourselves, to our friends and relatives, to the community as a whole, to not focus wholly on the negatives of a dead person, nor focus wholly on the positives. In this information age, where accuracy and completeness is such a strong tenet, we should reconsider that age old adage and change it:

Of the dead, speak only the truth.

2 thoughts on “Speaking ill of the dead

  1. Yishibah Baht-Gavriel

    I had to post this on facebook page because the author has captured the complex essence the subject of the taboo area of life and death. He has captured the subject in its purity, ethics and honesty. His analysis of subject matter has handled the issues with the skills and philosophical measure which has been crying out for measure and balance since the passing of former PM Mrs Thatcher. Not since the suicide of dictator Hitler has so much odium been poured off after one has passed. I was personally uncomfortable with the celebration of the death but the invective and abuse which followed the celebration went too far in many cases. Your article has provided the balance and real measure—Truth! Thank you.

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