Usually rendered in English as “Don’t speak ill of the dead,” a literal translation would read, “Of the dead, nothing unless good.” Seemingly, we are not only admonished to hold back from revealing the dark side of the deceased, but also to avoid mentioning even the neutral or possibly ambiguous aspects of his character or actions. The Latin precept, again if taken literally, seems absolute; there is no time limit specified after which we may speak the whole truth of the dead. Never, it would appear, could we come to “bury Caesar, not to praise him” (as Mark Antony speciously claimed he was going to do). Not even centuries after his death. But none of us buys that I suspect.
“The great irrelevancy”
The recent death of a noted newspaper columnist evoked the above description in a dismissive evaluation in The Guardian (UK). His writing was “more skippable than the full-page ads for luxury apartments.” He was a person who “ignored facts to the point of ignoring human welfare, let alone national welfare.” And an example of his style (“sarcastic and at the same time weirdly cosy,”) was derided as “clotted, so compressed, you can't pull out the argument or even decipher the tone.”
So much for De mortuis.
But what actually spurred me to write this blog were comments by readers such as this one: “What a sad, bitter column - totally lacking in dignity and grace. Couldn't you wait a week?”
The comment recognizes, as we all do implicitly, that the Latin precept is faulty, because the dead should not be forever exempt from the ill-speaking of critics. But that reader (and probably most other people) supports a sort of temporal cordon sanitaire, during which the De mortuis admonition holds sway. Here he suggests a week, but surely no-one in 1945 would sanction such a time lag during which praise for Autobahn-building and pet-dog head-patting was all that was allowed.
So, if you believe there should be a time lag, there needs to be a way to determine how much time should be allowed to elapse before leveling criticism (especially if you believe the lag should be linked to the deceased's degree of badness).
Cue the graph: er, sorry, it seems that the site won’t support my beautiful hand-made graph.
Well, you can compose your own:
The Y-axis is a ranking of bad-doers (from “Devil Incarnate” at the top going down in steps from “Ogre,” “Baddie,” and “Meanie” to zero badness).
The X-axis is the time lag before one can speak ill of the dead person and can be divided into any time periods you wish.
So now, if you believe in the appropriateness of a time lag before criticism of the dead is allowed, you are all set.
All well and good. But for full disclosure’s sake, I must record that my instant, totally-adult response upon reading of the noted columnist’s demise was: “He sucked!”