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Do Not Speak Ill Of The Dead

posted Dec 8, 2016, 2:24 AM by Kanika G   [ updated Dec 8, 2016, 2:25 AM ]

Yesterday my facebook news feed was full of articles outlining the virtues of Jayalalithaa. That is when I realised that she had passed away. I knew she was sick. But articles highlighting her strength and virtues could mean only one thing.

I don't remember ever seeing and article extolling Jayalalithaa appearing on my personal facebook news feed ever. So it is unlikely that any of my friends, or even their friends publicly shared one. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony says:

“The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones;

So let it be with Caesar.”

But I have found that, often, the opposite is true.

We are often stingy in doling out praise to people who are alive, and eager to criticize mistakes. Yet once they are dead we try to overlook their faults and unearth virtues we never noticed before.

This is neither about Jayalalithaa nor about Julius Caesar. This is about De mortuis nil nisi bonum, a Latin phrase that is loosely translated as Do not speak ill of the dead.

There is a strong social taboo against speaking ill of the dead. As far as social taboos go, a worthy one, in my opinion. After all how can it be honourable to attack those who cannot speak in their own defence? Gossip too is frowned upon for the same reason. But death is more final and therefore the taboo is stronger.

While it may be wrong to speak ill of the dead, there is no necessity to extol them either. So why do we do this in death, when we may not have done it in life? Is there some sort of social pressure? If so where does it come from?

Is it because we all hope to be well remembered? We must all die one day, but we all hope that our lives have left a mark on someone and that a shadow of our existence can continue so long as we are remembered and that can only happen if others think of us, speak of us, write about us after we are dead. We want these words and writings to be flattering and is that the reason we do this for the dead, hoping someone will do the same for us, someday?

Or is it just easier to be nice to the dead? Do we feel safer letting down our guard, acknowledging their virtues without being afraid of being taken advantage of, mocked, belittled or hurt in anyway? The dead cannot possibly reciprocate our compliments, and does the absence of such expectation make it easier to shower them?

Or is it that death, causes us to finally stop and think about the person and finally make an attempt to understand their point of view and empathize with them?

Or is it to ease the pain of the living, who are grieving the death?

The good things we say about dead people, either they are genuine or they are not.

If they are not genuine, then why say them at all? The dead can't hear us or hurt us. Neither do the grieving care for false sympathies.

If they are genuine, then why wait till death to express them? It would do them so much more good in life. While it does take more courage to express it then, it also has a lot more impact. And I don't mean this just for celebrities and public figures, but friends and family too. Why wait for death beds and death to convey our empathy, admiration, love and approval?

Heart felt eulogies do give closure to the loved ones of the dead and are an important part of the grieving process, but empathy, praise and approval need not be confined to eulogies alone. They can help make living relationships a lot happier too.

Disclaimer: This is not an article about the death of a particular person. The event only triggered this chain of thoughts about eulogies and what admirable and not so admirable human qualities causes us to react the way we (including me) do. This is not meant to be judgemental and I apologise if it comes across that way to anyone. Also this is not the product of extensive research but just some thoughts I had and is likely be woefully incomplete.  So please do share your thoughts on the subject.