By Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick (OBE), Director of EPC - International.
We do not ‘speak ill of the dead’. De mortuis nil nisi bonumdicendum est, a mortuary aphorism that dates from at least the 4th century is, I suspect, rooted in a superstitious fear that the dead may come back to harm us if we say bad things about them; perhaps that we might ourselves be condemned to wander as ‘lost souls’ in revenge for badmouthing those who are gone. We may, at times, wish to honour the memory of someone we couldn’t stand in life, or whose works and their consequences we hated; but if we are to avoid dishonesty, insincerity, we must have the courage to stand by what we said when they were alive. We can still be properly respectful in how we speak.
Of course the rule does not apply universally, but it seems we only allow ourselves to tell hard truths if the dead person was truly bad, a mass murderer. Maybe that comes from recognising that we are all fragile, given to making mistakes, doing some bad things at times.
In any case, it is surely possible to distinguish between the person and their legacy. I met and debated with Debbie Purdy a couple of times and I thought she was wrong – she made what is called a ‘category mistake’ – mixing up the category of one individual saying ‘I want to die now’ with the idea that such a wish must be enshrined in law. Individual wishes are just that – individual. Laws cover every citizen of a state or jurisdiction in which they are passed - which means they are a whole different category. It was her campaigning for this category mistake to be legalised that brought us into opposition.