De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum: Of the Dead, Nothing Unless Good

Thu, 16 Aug 2012 Source: Owusu-Ansah, Emmanuel Sarpong

‘If Professor Atta Mills had not slept the sleep of the ancestors, I wouldn’t have known the extent of his “piety”’; these were the words of a young Ghanaian lady who recently engaged me in a philosophical conversation about life and death.

It is a well-documented fact, that the late former president Mills’ government was vociferously criticized not only by opposition parties, but other groups and individuals. Paradoxically, the very people who persistently vilified him and his administration when he was alive, are now beatifying if not canonizing him outright. This has compelled a section of Ghanaians and foreign nationals to quite unfairly refer to the tears of known opposing groups and individuals as crocodile tears.

The breath of life is the most unique, powerful and precious entity in human existence; hence, the death of every human person, even notorious criminals, triggers some level of sad feelings in others. It is thus not uncommon for people to intuitively and interiorly mourn the death of their arch enemies, even though they may try to demonstrate the opposite outwardly. It thus takes a person with a dead or hugely impaired conscience to genuinely rejoice over the loss of their democratically elected leader.

Saying only good things about the dead is not unusual; it is in fact a human norm, a universal etiquette and phenomenon. This human norm is as old as Methuselah. The famous Latin aphorism, ‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (of the dead, let nothing but good be said; or speak no ill/evil of the dead), apparently coined in Greek by the philosopher, Chilon of Sparta, has been in existence since 600 BC. As a matter of fact, ancient Egyptians ensured that only good things were said about the dead, including oppressive Pharaohs.

The big questions however are: Why are bad things not spoken of the dead; is it out of respect for them? Why do human beings usually emphasize the ills and/or alleged transgressions of others when they are alive, and stress their good and/or supposed righteous deeds only after their deaths? The following is my personal position.

The practice of saying only good things about the dead can probably be explained from religious, social and natural perspectives.

Religious Perspective: We all do know that religion has always formed part and parcel of human existence; and one thing which is consistent with the doctrines of all the major religions of the world is the belief in an afterlife, and the fact that only those who live good moral lives experience eternal bliss when they die. Even though most of these religions hold that the Divine (the object of worship) cannot be influenced by humans and nothing could be done by the living to influence how the dead is judged by the Divine, their members instinctively believe that by saying bad things about the dead, they will somehow be compelling the Divine to chastise them (the dead). The living thus says only good things about the dead so as to enhance, as it were, their chances of experiencing everlasting bliss.

In the Roman Catholic and other orthodox Christian churches, the need for some believers to magnify the good deeds of the dead and sweep their transgressions under the carpet probably became popular at the time when belief in purgatory was very common and strong. Prayers and masses were and are still offered for the departed in hopes of speeding their liberation in case they were/are residing in that harrowing place/state of purgation. The feeling or intuitive belief of some of the laity is that, emphasizing the faults of the souls in purgatory could delay their exit to heaven.

Social Perspective: It is socially inappropriate to speak anything negative about a deceased person. When someone dies, the family, close friends and other loved ones are often confused and deeply hurt emotionally. They go through a variety of painful feelings and thus become vulnerable. To avoid inflicting further pain upon the family and loved ones, one prudently realizes the need to avoid mentioning the wrongdoings the deceased might have done on earth.

In practice however, the eulogy only seems to apply to the recently deceased; thus, people refrain from speaking badly about the dead only in the immediate aftermath of the passing. This means that very soon, historians, political and media analysts will start publishing critical reviews of the late former president’s life and works. They will be coming up with voluminous literary works such as: The Rise and Fall of Mills, the Headless Head; The Downfall of the Peacemaker who Never Experienced Peace; The Achievements and Failures of Uncle Atta, the ‘Mortuary Man’; Mills: the Worst Leader Ghana Has Ever Had; Greedy Bastards and Brutuses, the Cause of Mills’ Downfall; The Vision of the Visionless ‘Visionary’; The Dying Jogger; etc.; etc.

Inborn Viewpoint: Humankind, as it is generally believed, is responsible for their actions; and they are able to defend their actions on earth, and respond to false allegations to exonerate themselves only when they are alive. It therefore appears to me that humankind has the innate desire to give others the chance to justify their innocence or correct their wrongs so as to maintain or enhance their good reputation before death comes for them. This apparent inborn desire, perhaps sub-consciously induces humankind to highlight not the good deeds, but the misdemeanours or alleged misdemeanours of the living.

Nevertheless, every normal human person knows, that compliments or positive comments on a person’s behaviour or their works are not only uplifting, but a huge source of encouragement and strength for them. On the other hand, negative comments or allegations whether true or false, are not only emotionally and psychologically hurtful, but also dispiriting and disheartening. This underlines the need for every living person to receive not only negative but also positive comments from others in order to balance what I prefer to call, the complicated equation of life.

Some people argue that since the dead cannot feel any anguish or amusement about things that are said of them, it is better to sing the praises of the living and vilify the dead than vice versa; their philosophy is: about the dead, say nothing good, about the living, say nothing bad; but I tremendously disagree. If this were to be the case (i.e. positive things said about the living and negative things said about the dead), the death of many supposedly righteous people would scandalize and dampen the spirit of the many who saw them (the deceased) as role models when they were alive.

My philosophy is this: Commend me when I excite or impress you; reprimand me if you sincerely think I have faltered or erred; and do not praise me if you honestly believe that I have done no good. Do not let me expire before you start singing my praises as you are doing to Prof Mills; for, my ghosts, if ghosts exist, will not be at peace. After my death, tell others about what you know for a fact, were my strengths and weaknesses; they would learn wonderful lessons from both.

May the souls of the late former president, Professor Evans Atta Mills and my very good friend, Rev Fr Mathias Nwea Ackah (a member of the Archangels Group, formed at St Pauls Major Seminary), rest in superlatively perfect peace.

Emmanuel Sarpong Owusu-Ansah (Black Power) is an Investigative Journalist, a researcher and the author of Fourth Phase of Enslavement (2011) and In My End is My Beginning (2012). He may be contacted via email (andypower2002@yahoo.it).

Columnist: Owusu-Ansah, Emmanuel Sarpong