Must We Speak No Ill of the Dead?

Must We Speak No Ill of the Dead? February 25, 2021

The death of Rush Limbaugh last week raised an issue that comes up every time someone who is disliked – by anyone – dies: must we speak no ill of the dead?

And where did that idea come from, anyway?

This Washington Post article, written in 2018 after the death of John McCain, traces the saying to the Greek philosopher Chilon of Sparta, who lived in the 6th century BCE. It comes to us from Chilon through  Diogenes Laërtius (4th century CE), and then through Ambrogio Traversari (1433) who translated it into Latin: De mortuis nihil nisi bonum: “of the dead, say nothing but good.”

The saying is both very old and non-Christian. So while the idea that only the Christian God can judge the dead may help explain its continued use, it doesn’t explain its origin.

In any case, I’m less concerned with where it came from and more concerned with whether or not it’s something we should observe.

Julius Caesar. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

The desire to pass judgement

We need to start here. Whether our politics are left, center, or right; whether our religion is Pagan, Christian, atheist, or anything else; whether we liked the deceased or not, most of us do this. When someone dies we want to instantly declare them “good” or “bad.”

The problem is that we rarely know someone’s full life, and we never know their heart. And so we make two mistakes.

The first mistake is that we draw conclusions based on incomplete information. And sometimes, on wrong information. I was getting ready to write a rather different piece on Rush Limbaugh. Then I looked through his book (published in 1993, when I was listening to him regularly) and realized that my memories of what he used to say were faulty.

The second mistake is that we quickly and intuitively distill a lifetime down to “good” or “bad.” If we liked the person we praise them and mourn their passing. If we didn’t like them we criticize them and say how the world is better off without them.

People are complicated. Their lives are even more so. Whether we speak good or ill of the dead, what we say is guaranteed to be incomplete.

The living are not a jury for the dead. Our opinions – however valid they may be – have no impact on the kind of afterlife the deceased will experience (our actions may have an impact, but that’s another topic for another time).

When we pass judgement on the dead what we say is usually more about us than it is about them.

Judging actions vs. judging people

We don’t know everything about anybody and we don’t know much about most people, especially public figures. But what we do know is how they impacted our lives.

The sometimes-popular New Age saying “nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent” is spiritual bypassing. The truth is that those who verbally attack others harm them. Those like Rush Limbaugh who ridicule people who are suffering make things worse for them. Those who advocate for policies that cause harm bear some responsibility for that harm, even if they didn’t cause it directly.

Maybe someone else could “just ignore them.” Maybe someone else had the resources to insulate themselves from the person’s words and actions. That doesn’t mean everyone could.

And that’s before we get to abusive parents and spouses and others who caused physical suffering in addition to emotional suffering.

It is normal, healthy, and ethical to be glad a source of your suffering is gone.

There have been few people whose deaths I celebrated. There have been many who I was very glad were finally gone.

Respect the grieving

For you, a source of suffering or irritation is gone. For someone else, a loved one is gone.

This, more than anything else, is the true wisdom behind nil nisi bonum. Whatever complaint you may have had with someone who did bad things, it does not extend to those who loved them. This is not the time to tell people “the hard truth” about a parent, child, or friend. They have their hands full dealing with a very real loss. It is selfish and blatantly disrespectful to attack the grieving and make their suffering worse.

Here’s an article from 2019 about a Catholic priest who turned the funeral of a young man into his own rant against suicide. “He was up there condemning our son, pretty much calling him a sinner. He wondered if he had repented enough to make it to heaven.” Whatever the position of the Catholic church and this particular priest on the question of suicide, adding to the family’s grief was inexcusable.

There may be times when the record needs to be set straight. But that time is not in the hours and days immediately after someone’s death.

When the dead are public figures

The Washington Post article discussed how the internet has changed how we talk about the dead. As with the living, people say things from behind a keyboard that they’d never say face to face. They also say thing about people they never knew beyond their public persona.

Our obligation to “fans” (a word that grossly understates what some public figures mean to some of us) is less than our obligation to the family and close friends of the dead. But it’s not nothing, either.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, my first public response was a brief Facebook post expressing shock and grief. Many people joined in with their own thoughts, and their fears for the future. But one person commented that while they weren’t celebrating her death, they were glad there would be no more of her liberal opinions on the court. I shut them down, which I rarely do: “not tonight – people are grieving.”

I said what I thought needed to be said on the death of Rush Limbaugh: he was a skilled entertainer who got rich mocking people who were suffering, and anyone who disagreed with his politics.

But I did not post this or similar comments on the pages of my friends who remembered him fondly. There will be plenty of other times to discuss the reasons we viewed Limbaugh so differently. In the moment, I need to let them mourn their loss.

What will people say when you die?

I think this is the other primary logic behind nil nisi bonum. If I say something bad about the dead, someone else may say something bad about me when I die.

But keeping people from saying bad things about you doesn’t require a mutual non-aggression pact. Rather, the best way to keep people from saying bad things about you after you’re dead is to live in such a way as to make such comments unthinkable.

A quote from Franklin Roosevelt that made its way into a 2015 Democratic Presidential debate says “judge me by the enemies I have made.” If fundamentalists and fascists speak ill of me after my death, I will consider that a great victory.

I’m more concerned with what my family, friends, and co-religionists say about me.

And the time to work on that is now.

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