#193: De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bene: We Owe Respect to the Dead

Queen Elizabeth II died two days ago, and her loss was felt around the world. She has always been committed to her duty to represent the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, transcending that which remained of the Empire into a time of decolonization, new partnerships, a more European Britain, and eventually, sadly, Brexit. She lived her role with grace, dignity and even some humor – overshadowing for 70 years whoever may have had to follow her footsteps. Now it will be up to Charles III to continue her legacy.

No matter how you feel about either of the two, about the monarchy as an institution, the Royal family’s place within the democratic United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, within the world even, none of that matters in such a moment other than the realization of loss.

A human being has died, one that has been a world leader for an almost unimaginably long time, her record beaten only by Louis XIV. She has not been a dictator or tyrant, which might have changed how I would feel about what I am about to write. Instead, she knew her role as a constitutional monarch in a democracy without a constitution, she served her people rather than to rule them, she represented the realm in the truest sense of the principle of the “king’s two bodies”: even though I certainly wish she would have spoken out more on political issues (such as Brexit), she felt, probably over-correctly so, that her place was to symbolically embody the state and its people. A leader in her position always stands for more than a regular person would, even though we all are playing roles in our lives every single day. But her function, which she took to be as a most serious and solemn duty, was to carry that burden and be there for her people, or even for all of us, and tell everyone: whatever happens, we shall persevere, and ever after leaving behind this mortal coil, the crown would pass to her successor, and this continuity would guarantee stability and peace. A ruler or leader stands never for themselves only but for the institution which is supposed to serve the people.

With all this gravity in mind, and the historic changes that happened to Britain in the last 70 years, and her personal contributions to the Crown, it fills me with sadness to see some people react with what can only be called vile hatred against a person they probably never knew. Certainly, the British Empire was not always a force for good, but such a discussion is to be had in history books, seminars, or wherever and whenever it may be appropriate. This is not such a time. Why is that?

The old rule to not speak ill of the dead – “de mortuis nil nisi bene [or bonum] dicendum est”, or more precisely maybe in Chilon of Sparta’s “τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν” (tòn tethnekóta mè kakologeîn), all basically meaning the same – may refer to either mentioning only the good things, or overall, speaking in a well-spoken manner about those who have died. A reason for that may be that they can’t talk back and defend themselves any longer, but it goes further.

Nobody’s life is without challenges, and some of us do it better than others, but none of us are or could ever be perfect. Realizing this should fill us with humility, with the realization that no matter how hard we may try to always do the right thing, we may occasionally fail. Thus at the end of someone’s life, we shall look upon their life, seeing the human, ecce homo, recognizing their humanity, our shared humanity, as what it is: The body of proof of someone whose erratic attempt at life has come to a conclusion. It is not necessarily ours to judge – especially in this fragile moment immediately after death – every aspect of their life as it was lived, but it is ours to stand in reverence of the powers of both life and death, and of the achievement, no matter how small or large, how successful or flawed, of this our fellow human being as we witness and maybe even mourn their passing.

This is what human decency in the face of the passing of one of us means: we may think there are too many people on this tiny planet, and we may think that there will always be more of us. But we are not that many, we live on this small planet, orbiting an ordinary star, in an ordinary place in an ordinary galaxy in a universe vaster than we could even imagine. The passing of even one of us is a momentous event. If you consider yourself in any way a decent, humanitarian, maybe even religious, or even woke human being, there is only one option here: to take in this moment and remain in awe to the gravity of what has just happened. A life ended, and we honor the person’s passing because – well, because we should.

What comes to mind suddenly is Sting’s song “Tomorrow We’ll See” from his album Brand New Day:

Don’t judge me
You could be me in another life
In another set of circumstances
Don’t judge me
One more night I’ll just have to take my chances
And tomorrow we’ll see”

Yet what if the person who died was really, above any doubt, bad, evil, utterly irredeemable? That certainly makes it difficult, and it would be easy to give in and fail to see the human even in them, but I prefer to aim for the ideal of Unlimited Love.

Some, depending on their perceptions of who they believe the Queen stood for, have really seemingly forgot or ignored these lessons. No matter. The reason we treat others with humanity can be self-serving (for we would like to be treated the same), but it is simply the right thing to do in the realization of what life means, for all of us, in this world that much too frequently can be all-too cruel. Let us not make it even worse by violating every rule of decency in a moment as this.

Certainly, Queen Elizabeth II. always carried herself in this way of decency and dignity, and can serve as an example here as well, for all of us. She shall and will be missed.