Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why Don't We Speak Ill of the Dead?

Because they come back to haunt you.

The scathing obituary trend has claimed yet another victim – the late Cornelia June Rogers Miller of Murphy, North Carolina, whose “horrified” family claims they have no idea who wrote the obituary that accuses their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother of drug addiction and years of abuse. The obituary appears to have been plagiarized, with some phrases lifted directly from the obit of Leslie Ray “Popeye” Charping and others lifted from the obituary of Dolores Aguilar, which has been verified real by Snopes. Real or not, Mrs. Miller’s obituary has gone viral, and leaves me wondering, why the traditional proscription against speaking ill of the dead?

I googled the question, hoping to find some information about the history of this custom. Instead I found a brief Wikipedia article explaining the Latin phrase “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum,” but with nothing to put this information in context; some links to websites catering to ESL speakers; and discussion of the matter on multiple forums. Nothing official.
So, as I have done in the past, I turned to Facebook. Responses from Facebook friends included:

  • “I dunno. Sometimes I do.”
  • “Out of respect.”
  • “They aren’t here to defend themselves” or “they can’t reply.”
  • Only God can judge us.
  • “Because they will come back and haunt you.”
  • “To avoid feelings of morbid reflection…celebrate the good times.”
  • So no one will speak ill of us after we’re dead.
  • Because “we want to remember people differently than they were,” and my favorite,
  • “Why not? They’ll never know” – so, best do it while they’re alive, amirite?

My friend Mark responded, “Because of necromancers. You talk ill of the dead and all the sudden skeletons are like sup I heard you talking sh*t.” Another friend claimed, “If you had issues, it was on you to work them out before they passed.” Uh huh, sure. Maybe it was on them. You don’t know my life.

Someone else pointed out that, traditionally, “Folks believed that the dead spoke to either God or the saints and put in a good word for the living.” This kind of makes sense. You don’t want to piss off Great Aunt Jennibeth if she might still be able to exact vengeance. On the other hand, considering what she was like, you’re probably f&cked no matter what you do.

Democratic Underground user starroute claims that not only was it traditionally considered bad luck to speak ill of the dead, but mentioning them by name at all “was all too likely to call them up and could lead to very bad results…if you couldn’t totally avoid mentioning the dead, you should at least say something flattering so they wouldn’t get pissed and come trouble you.” You don’t want creepy uncle Tommert to keep giving you those lingering hugs from beyond the grave.

Of course, there’s a yuge double standard when it comes to speaking ill of the dead, and that’s public figures. No one bats an eye if you call Adolph Hitler the evilest man who ever lived, but point out that Grandpa was an alcoholic and suddenly you’re some kind of an asshole. It hardly seems fair, does it?