Why Shouldn't We Speak Ill of the Dead?

by JoHarrington

When somebody dies, there is a tendency to talk only about the good that they did in life. Is this really the best way for them to be remembered?

I remember when my Nan died. I was standing on the doorstep looking out over the sea of flowers on the lawn, awaiting the arrival of the hearse. I felt so angry. I wanted someone, anyone, to come by and say something terrible about the flowers, just to give me the excuse to punch them in the gob.

Of course, such a situation is highly improbable, but that wasn't the point. I'd done shocked calm and I was yet to dissolve into tears. I was still at the lashing out stage of grief, where all I needed was a tenuous provocation. Then I could have hit back at a world which had taken my Nan.

It's dangerous to speak ill of the dead. Their relatives are emotionally raw and prone to retaliation. But beyond such considerations of tact in front of mourners, why shouldn't we speak out?

A Reputation Set in Stone

The final word is always the most important. It's the one which cements a legacy for good or ill.

Image: JusticeIn a court of law, the final summing up is usually the most important aspect of a grand trial.  The jury will have sat through reams of evidence and testimonies. Now it's the turn of the prosecution and defense to help those present to make sense of it all.

It's a quirk of psychology that the last words spoken are those most keenly recalled. They can sway an opinion far better than the opening lines.

Thus it is with a life and posthumous reputation.  At the final reckoning, it's the words spoken in the eulogy which count more than a whole life-time lived. Those are what onlookers will remember.

It's a time for judgement, which comes when there's no more life left to redeem or tarnish a reputation. It was the actions while living which counted, not the death. We all die. It's the nature of our existence that we eventually end. Our legacy is then in the hands of those we left behind.

Of course, there's a mad scramble then to secure the memories.  Those deemed beyond the pale of society - serial killers and war criminals - will have their crimes picked over publicly, with gleeful abandon. Those who achieved great good are elevated to the level of gods or saints.

But most people aren't like that.  We tend to live ordinary lives, in a narrow world, with both good and bad meaning not much at the end of the day. The families that love us have that old fall back to safeguard our reputations, 'You shouldn't speak ill of the dead.'  They are in mourning, therefore they have the tendency to forgive and forget all little blips on our character. Thus we pass into the next life almost universally blameless.

Then you get the public figures, those who represented something much bigger than themselves. Their agencies may still be large and strong, demanding that a reputation be glowing, not for the love of the deceased, but for the brand or institution left behind. 

See here the polarizing effect on British society, current at the time of writing, caused by the death of Margaret Thatcher.  The Conservative Party goes on. It does not wish to have a succession of past policies and actions picked over now in anger and bitterness. It has its current reputation to polish into perfection. It wants us to recall a former leader as someone who saved Britain, changed Britain for the better, strode like a colossus on the world stage.

It's not about Thatcher necessarily.  It's about a public being reminded and the impact that could have on the party's present aspirations.  Therefore the most often heard phrase leveled at all detractors is that old fall back, 'You shouldn't speak ill of the dead'.  But why not?

Respect in death should be earned in life. By not speaking ill of the dead, if such sentiments were deserved, then we collude in a whitewash.

Deceased Public Figures Who Have Been Spoken Against

At what point does 'don't speak ill of the dead' switch into 'yes, we really should discuss this now'?

The Dead Aren't Here to Defend Themselves

Anything could be said about us once we're dead. That's the fear which possibly lies behind the pressure not to say anything terrible.

Image: Princes in the TowerWe all want to be understood.  We want everyone to remember us fondly, particularly once we're dead and buried.  We want our lives to have meant something, and that thing to be quite wonderful.

Which is all a bit of a shame, if people are allowed to say what they will, once we've gone. We can't stand up and defend ourselves.  If it's their word against ours, and their word is the only one heard, then our reputation is irrevocably slandered.

Take Richard III.  His legacy was in the hands of the Tudor dynasty, which had an active interest in ensuring he was thought about badly.  It's been proven that a portrait of him was altered to make him look evil. The Tudors were aided and abetted by Shakespeare, who dramatized Richard as a villain.

Add into the mix a carefully fostered rumor that Richard III killed the Princes in the Tower and it was all over for him.  Forget what Richard was really like, in the public memory, he was the darkest monarch ever to have taken the English crown. Aren't we glad that the Tudors saved us?

The example of Richard is one of the biggest reasons why we cling to the belief that no-one should speak ill of the dead.  Yes, there's an element of wishing our loved ones to be remembered fondly.  But mostly, we know that our time will come too.

The dead aren't here to defend themselves.  It's up to their supporters to do it for them. But doubt can always be cast and who can speak of truths without the evidence? 

But then again, is that any reason to say nothing bad at all?  Sometimes there are victims, who are having to live with the damage wrought.  They could really do with the dialogue right around now.

Condemning Victims to Suffer in Silence

An enforced silence subtly alerts the living to the fact, that any and all bad behavior will be struck from the record, once we reach our graves.

The deceased are always innocent.

Those who knew otherwise - sometimes their victims - are suddenly struck dumb. Bad feeling festers inside. Memories, which desperately crave the unburdening, are locked within, because it's too late. It's all water under the bridge. It doesn't matter. It happened a long time ago and nothing can be done now. The perpetrator is dead.

It makes you wonder how often survivors of abuse live for decades with things left unspoken. They have to suffer the consequences, without anyone ever knowing. If you can't speak ill of the dead, then their abuser's sins go with them into the grave.

Your Turn to Care

Surviving the Aging and Death of the Adults Who Harmed You

The Truth Will Out

As a genealogist, I've placed myself in situations where family members want to speak out. The alternative is an unblemished record entering the family tree.

Image: Shadowed figureMany years ago, I was speaking with two elderly relatives about family history. As they gave me facts and recounted stories, I took notes.

They could see names being recorded in our genealogy, all given equal weight of importance, as they took their places according to blood-lines. Innocuous, and somewhat bland, unless a tidbit about them enriched their entry in the family tree.

Suddenly my great-auntie burst out an accusation, "He was a right 'un!" She looked shaken by having said it, so full of bitter emotion. 

Her cousin looked shocked and spoke with a hint of reproval, "Now come on, it was a long time ago."

It certainly was. According to my newly scribbled notes, the individual had been dead for nearly seventy years. But my great-auntie could see his name nestling alongside her mother, her grandmother, his siblings and his wife. The proximity was more than she could bear, when they were all being treated the same, in a document which was being carried forward. She and her cousin were the last people alive who'd known him.  They were the last ones to know what he was really like.

"He beat his wife, you know.  And his mother! My Nan used to hear him coming home from the pub. He had to pass her house to get to his own. She used to blow out the candle and hide behind the settee, until he was gone. Then his wife would get it instead!"

Her cousin tutted, "She doesn't want to know all this."

I did and I should. My great-auntie had grasped the situation perfectly.  I was the family historian and whatever I wrote down now became the truth.  It would potentially be read by all generations to come. Why should a man like that be rendered blameless, by sheer dint of having decayed?

"But your grandad laid him out." My great-auntie concluded triumphantly. "He walked in and caught him belting his wife one day.  So your grandad punched him out stone cold."  There was a sweet satisfaction in that smile. There was the knowledge that this was also being added to the record. Her brother, my grandfather, had the courage to stand up to such a man.

Everyone in this story was deceased, but there were truths aching to be told. My great-auntie had waited seven decades biting her tongue, not wishing to speak ill of the dead. But now she'd gained retribution on behalf of her own auntie and grandmother. She'd had the final word, and every generation hereon would know it.

Should my Great-Auntie Have Told That Story?

Her cousin thought it inappropriate and irrelevant now. My great-auntie deemed it a tale which had to be told.
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georgettejohn on 04/22/2013

The truth from the past can shine light on the present...

thegoodvillager on 04/17/2013

There is a difference between speaking ill for speaking ill's sake, and speaking the truth. One is malicious and self-serving, and the other is done for healing, validating, setting the record straight, etc.

JohnTannahill on 04/10/2013

Of course, your own family history is still relatively private to you but anecdotes like that begin to tell a story between the dry facts. I wish I had more of those.

katiem2 on 04/10/2013

It's funny how older generations feel it vital to keep such secrets protecting their family and peers when we now feel full disclosure proves to be healthy. I say YES!

humagaia on 04/10/2013

Of course she was right to assuage her emotions - keeping them pent up is not a good thing, especially for several decades.
History should be re-evaluated once the writings of the victors have settled and the dust on the writings of the losers is blown away.

Guest on 04/09/2013

Agreed. Needs to be told. There are many dead who have had worse said of them lately.

HollieT on 04/09/2013

Absolutely, the truth should always come out. Without it, we are left with a false and meaningless record.

Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in American History

This state by state Kindle series glorifies in speaking ill of the dead, but only if their subjects deserved it.
Updated: 11/08/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 06/02/2013

Thank you very much, and I still stand by that one.

cmoneyspinner on 06/02/2013

"Respect in death should be earned in life."
You said it. I'm just repeating it because it bears repeating.

JoHarrington on 04/27/2013

You've put your finger on precisely the reason that 'don't speak ill of the dead' is a thing. It's either those half-understood kernels of truth, or the story dies with the only person left who knew a thing. Which is the best way forward?

AngelaJohnson on 04/26/2013

I'm not sure how I feel about family history stories. The person being spoken about is dead and the people who are relating stories may have different views on what happened - especially children who don't always understand what's going on. Now if several people all said the same thing, or there was some type of documentation, that's different.

JoHarrington on 04/22/2013

True. True. And well put.

frankbeswick on 04/22/2013

Family history is like archaeology. When you dig you eventually unearth skeletons.

JoHarrington on 04/22/2013

Family history is such a minefield for these things, isn't it? The trouble is that ideas of what's right and wrong, scandalous or acceptable, change over the generations. What may be a big deal to the older generation is nothing to us.

One of the problems that I had was realising that I was seeing my ancestors like characters in a story. They'd been dead long before my time, so there wasn't that emotional connection. But I'd be speaking with people who actually had known them. Once I'd recognized I was doing it, I was able to approach it slightly more appropriately.

Your grandmother reminds me a lot of mine. She too worried about what I was going to find digging about in Blaenafon. I never did discover what was worrying her so much.

Thanks for commenting!

georgettejohn on 04/22/2013

And isn't speaking "ill" a matter of perspective? When researching my own family history my grandmother consistently became disgusted when I started to reiterate what I had uncovered thus far on her side (in addition to what she had voluntarily disclosed/shared). She'd say, "I don't know why you want to know so much about a bunch of dead people" yet she spoke of them frequently in a few favorite storys in particular. When I discovered her brother had run away because he didn't want to go to school and went to his uncles house in another town only to be sent back home...I realized that was her "secret". Something she didn't want anyone to know for some reason or another. It was speaking "ill" of him in her mind! Great article! I enjoyed it.

JoHarrington on 04/17/2013

Thank you for reading it. And yes! I had my eye on those too. It's refreshing to see an author just come out with it.

Mira on 04/17/2013

I enjoyed reading your article and the comments. I am also intrigued by the Jerks series. I would be interested to read a book or two.

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