‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum’ is from Sparta, not the Bible

Aug 1st, 2010 | By | Category: Ministry

There is an old Jewish story about a gathering for a funeral.  The mourners have come out of a sense of obligation rather than through any fondness for the departed.  The rabbi sensing a feeling in the air asks, “Would anyone like to say a few words about our brother Isaac?”

There is an embarrassed silence as people look at their feet or stare fixedly into the middle distance so as not to catch the rabbi’s eye.

Feeling awkward about the situation and feeling that someone should say something, the rabbi asks again, “Would anyone care to say a few words about Isaac?”

Again, there is silence, no-one prepared to venture even a word.  As the silence drags out the sense of awkwardness continues, people furtively glancing around to see if anyone will speak.  Eventually, a man, a contemporary of Isaac, feels compelled to speak up.

“His brother was worse”.

The stories comes often to mind at Irish funerals where there are moments when the truth is the last thing anyone wishes to hear.

Ministering in a far away country parish, twenty years ago, there was the funeral of a man who was chiefly known for excessive eating and gambling; both sustained through the generosity of the taxpayer who provided the various benefits he drew.  Regular visits to him never prompted any degree of spiritual reflection on his part.

One day, as I drove to a local town, the man waved me down at the crossroads close to his cottage.  I wound down the car window and asked if everything was well with him.

“Oh, your reverence, it’s you! If I had known it was you, I wouldn’t have waved you down.  You’re not the man for the job; I wanted someone to take a £5 bet to the bookmaker”.

Telling the story at the funeral, I said, “Perhaps I’m not the man for the job, today,” and then tried to talk about the man as he was.

The nephews responsible for looking after the man expressed thanks that the truth had been told; they had had a terrible time trying to deal with him on his frequent visits to hospital over the years.  The man’s brother, who had not been near him in twenty years, said, “You shouldn’t have told that story about the bet – that wasn’t right”.

“Did you visit him?”

He went silent.

Sometimes, sitting at funerals, there seems a great collective conspiracy to say nothing unpleasant.  Everyone may know the truth (in the country everyone plus their neighbours in the next townland know the truth), but no-one seems prepared to say anything.  Sometimes the very thing needed for the healing of memories is for someone to stand up and call things as they are, but there seems a superstitious inhibition to speaking.

Dead people can do no harm, but the damage they leave behind can.  There is a need to speak of the dead as they were, it might be good, and it might be that they were worse than their brother.

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  1. I agree with you entirely, but with a small reservation.

    I have been to quite a few funerals, fortunately of people who deserved the worthy tributes from the altar (celebrant and family members). I take serious issue the the RC church which is attempting to ban such eulogies from the religious service.

    I agree that the celebrant can prick the baloon by telling it as it is, and this can be a great relief in the case of a deceased gobshite.

    However there may be occasions when the funeral is not the place to raise the hare, and where a family needs time to grieve. In this case I would amend the “nisi” by the addition of “instanter”. After the grieving period the gobshite is fair, justifiable, and necessary game.

  2. Funerals should really be about the bereaved and not about the deceased. If we got the focus right, it might be easier for those left behind.

    I sometimes have problems with the ‘joyful reunion in heaven’ stuff – I think there are spouses who are sometimes relieved to have escaped years of oppression and who probably have no desire to see the deceased again.

  3. It is, of course, always conceivable that the spouses could end up in different places 🙂

  4. Protestants are, of course, predestined – so there is no escape.

  5. I agree with your thought about funerals being for the bereaved rather than the deceased.
    But I have heard it often said about recently dead men that “ah, he wasn’t the worst.” And that meant with genuine affection, albeit combined with a realistic assessment of his contribution while living.

  6. The great Paul Eddington requested that his epitaph be, “He did very little harm.”

  7. Great comments by all. I was reading a Nero Wolfe novel and the “de mortuis…” phrase came up. With my rusty Jesuit high school Latin class as my only tool I could translate roughly half of the meaning. It’s been a pleasure being in your midst.

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