ⓘ De mortuis nil nisi bonum

De mortuis nil nisi bonum

ⓘ De mortuis nil nisi bonum

The Latin phrase De mortuis nihil nisi bonum "Of the dead, nothing but good", abbreviated as Nil nisi bonum, is a mortuary aphorism, indicating that it is socially inappropriate to speak ill of the dead.

The full sentence De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est translates to "Of the dead nothing but good is to be said". Freer translations into English are often used as aphorisms, these include: "Speak no ill of the dead", "Of the dead, speak no evil", and "Do not speak ill of the dead".

The aphorism is first recorded in Greek, as τὸν τεθνηκoτα μὴ κακολογεῖν ton tethnekota me kakologein, "Do not speak ill of the dead", attributed to Chilon of Sparta ca. 600 BC, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, in the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Book 1, Chapter 70 by Diogenes Laertius, published in the early 4th century AD. The Latin version dates to the Italian Renaissance, from the translation of Diogenes Greek by humanist monk Ambrogio Traversari Laertii Diogenis vitae et sententiae eorum qui in philosophia probati fuerunt, published 1433.


1.1. Usages Novels

  • The Haunted Bookshop 1919, by Christopher Morley Roger considers De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum as a possible inscription on the gravestone for Bock, his dog that died in an explosion.
  • The Last Chronicle of Barset 1867, by Anthony Trollope After the sudden death of the Bishops wife, the Archdeacon describes De mortuis as a proverb "founded in humbug" that only need be followed in public and is unable to bring himself to adopt "the namby-pamby every-day decency of speaking well of one of whom he had ever thought ill."
  • Lonely Road 1932, by Neville Shute
  • The Power-House 1916, by John Buchan After destroying the villain, Andrew Lumley, the hero, Sir Edward Leithen, speaks De mortuis & c., an abbreviated version of the phrase, about the dead Lumley.

After the thwarting of his gun-running operation, meant to alter the course of British politics, the villain, Professor Ormsby, challenges the hero, Commander Stevenson, with the phrase De mortuis nil nisi bonum, to imply that he, Prof. Ormsby, would kill himself, for which reason Commander Stevenson would cancel the news-media campaign with which he had planned to publicly discredit Ormsby as a traitor.

To the implicit, honour-saving offer, Stevenson replies," Certainly, I am concerned with justice in this matter, not with politics.”

The next day, Professor Ormsby defenestrates himself from his rooms at Cambridge University, and Commander Stevenson returns to his life on the River Dart.

  • Murder Must Advertise 1933, by Dorothy L. Sayers About the dead man, two characters speak; the first asks:" What sort of chap was Dean?”.

The second replies:" Well. De mortuis, and all that, but I wasn’t exactly keen on him. I thought him rather an unwholesome little beast.”

  • Busman’s Honeymoon 1937, by Dorothy L. Sayers

About the dead man, two characters speak; the first, Mr Puffett, says:" They’re takin’ Mr. Noakes away”." It’s a good thing Mr. Noakes ain’t alive to see all that ’eap of coal. That’s a fire as does credit to any chimney.”

Hearing steps on the path, and seeing a dismal little procession passing the window: a sergeant of police and another uniformed man, carrying a stretcher between them. Mr. Puffett glanced from the window and removed his bowler hat:" And where’s all ’is cheeseparin’ brought ’im now?” he demanded.

The second man, Lord Peter Wimsey, says:" Nowhere. De mortuis ” and then some. Yes, he seems to be getting a nice derangement of epitaphs, poor old creature.”

  • Player Piano 1952, by Kurt Vonnegut. An engineer, Dr. Paul Proteus, recalls the phrase de mortuis in relation to fellow workers who committed a social faux pas during the annual social gathering; they would not be invited for the next year’s gathering.
  • Rites of Passage 1980, by William Golding The phrase is used during a conversation between the narrator and Miss Granham in the final section of the novel. After she calls the late Colley a "truly degraded man", Talbot springs to his defence: "Come, maam. de mortuis and all that! A single unlucky indulgence - The man was harmless enough."
  • Deus Irae 1976, by Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny Father Handy thinks of the phrase in reference to millions of people killed by nerve gas. He then subverts the phrase to "de mortuis nil nisi malum" in blaming them for complacently voting in the politicians responsible.

1.2. Usages Short story

  • "EPICAC", by Kurt Vonnegut After the demise of his friend/project - EPICAC, the supercomputer, the protagonist states the phrase in a memoir of someone who has done great for him.
  • Silence, Please”, by Arthur C. Clarke The mortuary phrase sums up and describes the feelings of other characters about the dead man, who was a university student–inventor who evoked mixed feelings towards himself. The short story" Silence, Please” is included to the collection Tales from the White Hart 1957.
  • De Mortuis” 1942, by John Collier. After an unwitting cuckold is accidentally informed of his wife’s infidelities, he plans an opportunistic revenge; the titular phrase, de mortuis, implies the murderous ending of the story.

1.3. Usages Poetic

  • In" Sunlight on the Sea” The Philosophy of a Feast, by Adam Lindsay Gordon, the mortuary phrase is the penultimate line of the eighth, and final, stanza of the poem.

The poem," Sunlight on the Sea” The Philosophy of a Feast, is in the collection, Sea Spray and Smoke Drift 1876.

  • In" The Open Grave”, by Louise Elisabeth Gluck, the mortuary phrase is repeated as a framing cadence.

The poem," The Open Grave”, is in the collection, Vita Nova 1999.


1.4. Usages Philosophic

  • The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud mentions the phrase in Thoughts for the Times on War and Death 1915, in the second part of the essay," Our Attitude Towards Death”, wherein he said

We assume a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done, and issue the command, De mortuis nil nisi bene: we act as if we were justified in singing his praises at the funeral oration, and inscribe only what is to his advantage on the tombstone. This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.


1.5. Usages Cinematic

  • In the war–adventure film Lawrence of Arabia 1962 The phrase is cautiously used at the funeral of T. E. Lawrence, officiated at St Pauls Cathedral; two men, a clergyman and a soldier, Colonel Brighton, are observing a bust of the dead" Lawrence of Arabia”, and commune in silent mourning.

The clergyman asks:" Well, nil nisi bonum. But did he really deserve. a place in here?”

Colonel Brighton’s reply is a pregnant silence.


1.6. Usages Theatrical

  • In The Seagull 1896, by Anton Chekhov, a character mangles the mortuary phrase. In Act 1, in an effort at light metaphor, the bourgeois character Ilya Afanasyevich Shamrayev, misquotes the Latin phrase Nil nisi bonum and conflates it with the maxim De gustibus non est disputandum" About taste there is no disputing”, which results in the mixed mortuary opinion: De gustibus aut bene, aut nihil" Let nothing be said of taste, but what is good”.
  • In Julius Caesar 1599 by William Shakespeare, Mark Antony uses what is possibly a perverted form of the phrase De mortuis nil nisi bonum, when he says: The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.
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