Talking about the dead--and the living
In practice the admonition only seems to apply to the recently deceased, for few would aver that one should say only good things about, say, Attila the Hun, Torquemada, or Adolf Hitler, As with many such pieces of advice it is to be used with discretion.
On learning of the decease of her arch-rival Joan Crawford, Bette Davis is reputed to have remarked: “'My mother told me never to speak badly of the dead. She's dead.... Good.”
Witty, but it doesn’t address the issue head on. Why s h o u l d n ‘ t one speak ill of the dead? One clue is that the current formulation, by Traversari, comes from a time when belief in Purgatory was still common, in fact obligatory in the Christian world. Prayers and masses were offered for the departed who resided in that harrowing place of purgation in hopes of speeding their liberation. By the same token, emphasizing the faults of a dead person could delay his or her departure from Purgatory
Why then should modern secular persons follow this principle of denial? It beats the hell (sic) out of me.
I would like to propose the following principle. As far as possible, we should refrain from saying negative things about the living. Such comments are hurtful. After folks are gone, though, they have no sentience and cannot feel any anguish about things that are said about them. Of course this does not mean that one should simply reverse the motto: De mortuis nihil bonum--say nothing good about the dead. That would be extreme. But one should be free to mingle observation of the good with the bad. If it is feasible, though, the living should be spared.
PS I admit that for me this principle is more a thought experiment than anything else. My sharp tongue and pen have long been notorious. But perhaps I could try harder.
Labels: speaking of the dead