On Not Speaking Ill of the Dead

When famous people die, it seems to me increasingly common to read commentary in the blogosphere that begins something like this:

I know we’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but in Smith’s case, I can’t believe everyone is making him out to be such a great guy when he was obviously a lousy bastard! Let me set the record straight . . .

This pattern of acknowledging a social taboo and then violating it is often the first sign that the social taboo is on the way out. So it may be with this one. But before we wave it goodbye, I thought it might be useful to see what we might say to restore some appreciation for, or at least observance of, this longstanding rule of civility.

According to Wikipedia, the maxim “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” is generally traced to Diogenes Laertius, who attributes it to Chilon of Sparta. Chilon himself joined the ranks of the dead more than 2500 years ago, and if he explained the reason for this maxim in his writings, Wikipedia fails to record it.

But I suspect most RM readers have lived long enough to bid adieu to some souls that seemed, um, a little mottled. And even without Chilon’s help, I think we can identify a few good things about the taboo. Purely as a matter of social convention, remembering the best and forgetting the worst comforts those who mourn. It also comforts those who expect to be mourned. Frankly, if we did not customarily “polish up” the deceased for burial, funerals would be pretty horrific affairs, and I’m not sure the effect on the morality of the living would be quite so salutary.

There is also, of course, the matter of charity toward the deceased. Many of us believe in eternal life, and in prayers for the souls of the dead to find repose in true fellowship with their creator. For such people, it is false charity if we cannot bring ourselves to overlook the sins we hope God will forgive. And even putting aside any notion of eternal life, it is natural enough for anyone of civility to treat a dead man’s reputation as charitably after death as we do during life. As one of the Comment Guidelines for this blog puts it, we should “try to understand the contributions of other participants in the way most favorable to them, and pause to notice points of agreement instead of focusing exclusively on what divides us.”

If this all seems obvious, then perhaps the better explanation for the growing willingness to abandon the maxim is that people in the blogosphere don’t really treat each other as people. The examples I have in mind were celebrities, after all, which is practically like being a stage prop in the blogosphere. Perhaps the lack of any direct personal relationship makes commentators feel free to ignore the social taboo that they would observe without hesitation on their home towns.

Even so, I think adherence to the maxim that we should not speak ill of the dead serves several more self-regarding purposes that should recommend themselves even in the blogosphere. To whatever extent we were offended by the deceased, the death of our antagonist marks the point at which we really need to get over it and get on with living. Forgiving is good for us.

It is also good for us to avoid the humility deficit that accompanies any attempt to pass ultimate judgment on something as large and complicated as a rich, full life. I hasten to say that I am not pretending that all moral judgments are to be avoided as exercises in vanity; we all make them, of necessity, all the time in our own lives to guide our own actions. Nor do I condemn all criticism of others for moral lapses when they are alive; it can often be justified on charitable grounds, as a means of alerting others to the moral jeopardy involved or calling them back to the fold. But criticizing the dead, who are presumably beyond any turning that we can influence, seems to me pointless except as a sort of closing argument to God, if not an arrogation of God’s judgment. There, at the end of the life of one of our brothers or sisters, it would seem to me more appropriate to recall Micah’s answer to the question of what great things we ought to do for God: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

On the other side, I suppose there is the argument that the living can benefit from criticism of bad examples as effectively as from celebration of good ones. That’s true as far as it goes, but are there not enough bad examples among the living to meet the pedagogical need?

I suppose one might also argue that while it makes good sense not to speak ill of the dead in most cases, Smith’s case is really an exception because Smith was such an incorrigible reprobate. But I think this argument misses the point of the maxim. The injunction against speaking ill of the dead makes no sense except as a rule for times when you really want to speak ill of the dead. (It wasn’t really an issue when Mother Teresa died.) It’s not a pick-and-choose sort of rule, like a rule of thumb; it’s a rule that is supposed to override one’s judgment in any particular case.

On balance, then, I’m for the old civility rather than the new frankness. I hope it’s not too late.

5 Responses to “On Not Speaking Ill of the Dead”

  1. Jim Walsh Says:

    Rabbi tries to find words to say for the deceased, but can’t because the guy was such a bastard —- dishonest, churlish, totally selfish.

    He looks at the small crowd gathered in the funeral home and says, “Does anyone want to say some words?”

    They all look at their shoes and there is an awkward silence.

    Then, from the back row, comes a voice.

    “His brother was worse!”

  2. David Fitzgerald Says:

    I suspect that the classical reason was that a dead man could not defend his own honor. Similarly in the ancient world, it was taboo to publicly question a woman’s virtue or to take advantage of the widow and the orphan. They each have no means of satisfaction and therefore, speaking ill of them publicly is a manifestation of cowardice, bringing shame and dishonor on the one speaking the calumny. But I digress….

    I am reminded of this past Sunday’s Gospel. If you recall, the Pharisees and scribes question Jesus about why his disciples do not follow the purity codes and wash themselves before eating. Jesus immediately turns on them and warns the crowd that their obsession with another’s exterior uncleanliness blinds them to the interior rot which is surely within themselves, and is, of course, the real danger to their salvation.

    It would seem to me the ultimate hubris, when smacked in the face with the reality of one’s own mortality, to think it appropriate to nitpick the deceased faults?

  3. Steve Grannis Says:

    We need one exception and it’s needed often. I’m thinking of the case when one wants to debate those among the living who claim the departed reprobate was just swell. We must have this exception else we can’t learn fully from the lives of controversial, historical figures. Or talk at all about that dirtbag, Hitler.

  4. Mark Grannis Says:

    There you go, Jim: Now you have something to say at my funeral. ;-)

  5. Timothy Peach Says:

    Ted Kennedy was a major asshole.

    There, I said it.

    That not withstanding, I will pray for his soul.

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