Monday, 10 February 2014

Speaking Ill of the Dead

In a recent discussion about old traditions, this one came up.  It came up specifically to have a crack at me because I’d dared to say that someone recently deceased “could be a twat at times”.  I’m sure, if you didn’t already see it, you can imagine the shock and disgust this has raised - but has left me rather baffled on many levels.  And not just because of the primary school tale-telling shit-stir way it was raised and treated.

You see, I never heard this expression until my late teens.  Both my grandmothers were absolute bounties of superstitions and folk traditions, but I first heard this from a friend’s mother and my response at the time was “why on earth not?”

I have never been able to stomach those people who can’t stand someone when they’re alive but turn them into a saint on their passing.  I’ve ended a friendship with a young lady who barely tolerated her partner, they fought (sometimes with physical violence) and she frequently ran him down - all while he was alive.  After his suicide, even up to a year afterwards (which was roughly when I broke contact), it was true love and she just couldn’t possibly carry on living without him.

The people since that I’ve heard it from usually say it as they say something unkind about someone who has passed.  “Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead but…”  Is that better somehow?  I’ve understood it to be similar to those who say “I don’t want to complain but…”  I’m reminded of a line from Game of Thrones:  “Anything that anyone says before the word ‘but’ is to be ignored.”

I’ve always treated the dead the same as I treat the living.  This isn’t news.  This is the best way to deal with ghosts and spirits.  Any half-decent psychic will tell you that.  Why should this suddenly change?

I also struggled with how describing someone’s behaviour counts as Speaking Ill of Them.  I didn’t say anything that was untrue from my perspective, I didn’t even say anything remotely nasty.  It was described as “extremely disparaging” and “an epithet”.  I still maintain that was for dramatic effect from the people running around, telling on me and trying to create drama.

In my bafflement, I went to several people I knew who have a good solid grounding and knowledge of the same folk traditions as the people expressing their shock and horror at my statement.  I spoke to them about this ‘tradition’, I asked questions and explained what had happened and my confusion.

In all cases, I was told that you continue to speak to them as you did in life.  That you speak to and of them as if they were right next to you.  Which is exactly what I did.

So all of this has left me even more baffled.  I followed folk tradition to the letter - albeit unknowingly - because this is what I believe in.  Do those who claim to follow folk tradition have less of a grasp of it? Or has it changed with more politically correct times?

The chap in question is more than welcome to come and speak to me about it.  I have no issues regarding communicating with the deceased, but he hasn’t so far and I’m sure he’s aware of it. 




  1. There are two headwaters for the tradition that I know of.
    One is that speaking of the dead _At_all_ was supposed to disturb them and call their attention to you. I can see this springing up from the minds tendency to generate images based on worry and shadow, thus the subconscious will palce that person just beyond sight and in dark shadows, and the "feeling of them" is created by the subconscious, causing a self-haunting. Add to that the psychological fear and superstition of death and it becomes do not speak of the dead, let them (and their social debts) rest in peace. The obvious thing to discuss is a persons faults and gossip about their life...thus it becomes not to speak ill of the dead.

    The second I have heard traces back to the belief that the dead can hear when people speak of them. So if you talk nasty things about someone who is dead their spirit is likely to become agitated and restless, and thus cause you trouble as one of the angry dead from beyond the grave. Add to this the magical self generation of ill will from bearing ill will in ones' heart then there's good reason not to speak ill of the dead.

    The other, more practical reason, is that many people will be grieving, or missing the person or only know their good reputation. Thus anyone complaining about them is complaining about someone who can't defend or justify themselves, which before the it became the norm on the Internet was considered a dishonourable thing to do.

  2. This comment is from a facebook friend who tried to comment here, but had problems :)

    My comment wouldn't work on the blog, so here goes.
    I didn't know of this concept until well beyond the age where 'Because, that's why' was acceptable to me. It makes perfect sense to speak of someone missing as if they were there. I have an additional reason for this.
    Anger is part of grief.
    You should, at some point, get really damned angry at someone who has died. That's totally normal. You rant and rave at everyone about how that person made you's going to chew you up and tear you down. So that's why I try to keep things on a 'present/mute' level.