Monday, 17 March 2014

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum . . . .

. . . . . Don’t speak ill of the (recently) dead.

Two men, both larger than life, both on the very left of the political spectrum, have recently died in the UK. I briefly met one of them during a one day conference; being there as the hired help (I was one of the interpreters), this ardent socialist and defender of the common (wo)man, ignored both me and my colleague comprehensively. We had both been looking forward to meeting him and telling him how much we admired him. Ah well, ‘handsome is as handsome does’.

Both these men made many enemies during their careers; it is amusing to watch those, who thoroughly disliked them and all they stood for, now scraping and dredging for the most fulsome praise. And all with a straight face.

But I was going to talk about funerals, one of which I attended and the other I was told about.

Kelly’s dad recently died. He and Kelly’s mum had been divorced for many years. Apparently they couldn't live together and couldn’t live apart. He visited his ex frequently and the eight children of the marriage continued to get on well with him in spite of the fact that he had been busy fathering another four with a new partner, whom he never married. None of this is my business, you will quite justifiably say, but Kelly was perfectly frank about her father's busy life, which he pursued happily despite his many ‘aliments’. 

The funeral brought the two families together. It must have been quite a rumbustious affair. The second family overthrew all the funeral arrangements the two lots of children had initially agreed on, including changing the venue from a 'large catholic church to a paupers’ church’. “We’d given them money for half the costs but we took it all back again”, Kelly said, “we were really disgusted with what they did." She is a member of a large gypsy clan to whom appropriate funeral rituals are very important. “We did manage to give him his rosary beads and my sisters put a few ‘trinkels' in the coffin before it was closed”, she added.

The other funeral was here at Valley’s End. It was a short, matter-of-fact service, only two hymns were sung and even the eulogy was lifeless and dry. The deceased was “a man who didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all”; and “did everything he undertook to perfection". The mourners heard it and made up their own minds about the kind of man who could be found behind these statements.  There was a moment at the  graveside which made up for the bland service: a bugler from the British Legion played the Last Post, while a comrade lowered the flag, in a brief, moving salute. The deceased had requested that this be done. Perhaps he had made all the funeral arrangements himself, which would account for the nature of the service. Valley’s End is usually so good at funerals.

All the funerals I’ve ever attended had one thing in common: a jolly bun fight afterwards. I am often surprised at the excellent appetite and thirst the mourners display and once you’ve paid your respects to the immediate family, you are free to mix and mingle and chat and gossip. Loud laughter is never frowned upon; perhaps the relief at 'it not being me this time' is something to do with it? Only on one occasion have I been present when the deceased actually was the centre of attention after the funeral, but that was a party nobody who was there will ever forget. On that occasion the eulogies went on and on and all the good things said were true.


In “The Open Grave”, by Louise Elisabeth Glück, the mortuary phrase is repeated as a framing cadence.

My mother made my need,
my father my conscience.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum.

Therefore it will cost me
bitterly to lie,
to prostrate myself
at the edge of a grave.

I say to the earth
“be kind to my mother,
now and later.
Save, with your coldness,
the beauty we all envied.”

I became an old woman.
I welcomed the dark
I used so to fear.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum.


  1. I have ordered my children not to have a funeral for me. Going to my parents' funerals was enough for me.


  2. We used to have a really good gardener a few years ago, and one day he turned up battered and bruised and with a broken rib. It turned out he had been at a funeral where two sides of the family hated each other, and half way through the service a huge fight started, our gardener attempted to leave but got pushed and fell down some steps. In the meantime the police turned up and arrested half the folk there and then they managed to get the body to the crematorium. He was still OK and had not been involved in the fight, but mainly because he was trapped in an oak box. The gardener said it was one hell of a funeral but he might send his apologies to the next one they have.

  3. He fathered 12 children!?! Did he .... there' so much ... oops, de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

  4. I have attended too many funerals lately but they were all beautifully and respectfully done. However, I have heard of funerals where old grudges are brought out and cruel and harsh words were exchanged. What a horrible way to leave this world.

  5. Honestly, I haven't attended a funeral in ages. A friend from my past died last week, but she is on the East coast, and I haven't seen or spoken to her for many years. I sent a note to her daughter. There swill be no funeral for me, Friko - but if you want to do a blog post in my honor, that would be fine...

  6. I love your observations, and appreciate both your wisdom & skill writing.

    ALOHA from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral

    =^..^= <3

  7. He wanted to be saluted? Good grief.

  8. a man full of himself, knowing nothing of love.

  9. Funerals, like so many other family gatherings, can be a toss-up whether they bring out the best or the worst in those attending. A friend going to a family funeral was a little surprised that one side of the family left immediately after the church service and didn't get to the cemetery. No explanation was needed. When they arrived at the recently deceased's home for the wake, the early birds were just leaving - with a bulging truck load of his household goods.

  10. I'm sorry that Mr.Benn was so antipathetic...I had had no idea that he discriminated between collaborators and those hired to help.
    Mr. Crow would not have had the same problem.
    I always saw Benn as a bit left of centre -,a christian socialist...whereas Crow was a right down the line representative of his union's members.
    I attended funerals in France...from the paying of respects at the house to the procession to the grave...but every stage seemed to be marked by vinous hospitality

  11. I'm just home from the west coast where we attended the service for my niece's husband. The room was built for 200 people but 300 squeezed into it. Rick (36) had written his own eulogy in the last week of his life, and his brother had found "my life story" he'd written at the age of 16. My niece read an "open love letter" he had written to her. It was a heartbreaking but heartfelt service, with family and friends invited to speak. My brothers and I were among those who took the opportunity to say how much Rick had meant to our niece and to us. It was wonderful. No one spoke any ill of the dead.

  12. Nothing like a ruckus at a wedding and a food fight at a funeral--I am sure it did not happen, but it sounds good.
    It did happen here in an in-law family.

  13. smiles...i would rather they celebrate life when my time if i am not the center of attention that is alright by me....smiles...

  14. The photo is very beautiful.
    Sadly, it sounds rather typical of the great socialist to have ignored the hired helps completely. And also very typical of people who actively disliked him now to feed the media with only good things said about him. Hypocrites!

    We had two funeral services for my husband, one here in Germany where he died, and the other one two weeks later in England, where his ashes were scattered, and so that his friends and family could attend. Both services were moving, and both thimes, the gatherings afterwards were important for all of us, I like to think. We did talk of Steve a lot, and there was also laughter; only after the service in England I began to feel as if I'd be able to go on with my life now.

  15. Hi Friko - the graveside looks quite delightful with its pink spread of flowers ... funerals are personal things - somehow ... but warring families and 12 children .. enough said here. Over the years I've been to a real mix ... I have to say I just prefer the quiet understated ones, but appreciate learning more about the person who has died, if they were relatively eminent in their lives.

    Well that explains Kelly's absence ... and Benn and Crow and David Frost's memorial in a week - is pushing the boat out to celestial heights ... their conversations on arrival would be interesting ...

    Cheers to you - Hilary

  16. Hallo Friko,
    Beerdigungen sind für alle - nicht nur für die Angehörigen - schlimm. Im vorletzten Jahr ist ein Onkel gestorben, im Jahr davor eine Tante. Wenn man danach im Kreis der Verwandtschaft zusammen ist, gibt es trotz der Trauer auch angenehme Züge. Dass man nämlich als Verwandtschaft zusammen ist, dass man solidarisch ist und sich gegenseitig hilft. So hat der Tod durchaus ambivalente Züge, dass Verbindungen, die vorhanden sind, intensiviert werden.

    Gruß Dieter

  17. It is sad that even in death, these two families couldn't come together and celebrate both on a more together way. It is sad to see people fight after death, but it does happen - there is always someone that doesn't agree. My Mom was smart - she put me in charge, I do not fight, I do not argue, I did exactly what my Mom had written down on paper and prior to all the fighting and arguing, I gave them each a copy of her hand written wishes - oh, Lord, that was not a pleasant day.
    I had to laugh at your "jolly bun fight" - it works like that here as well.
    Great Post and I am back on Blogger.....
    Cheers and thank you for the letter - that was most kind of you.

  18. The funerals I've been to have been much more restrained and mournful. No fights that Ive witnessed.

  19. I haven't attended a funeral since 2008 when my grandfather died. I luckily have never witnessed a confrontational funeral...and I hope I never have to.

  20. I've been to too many funerals/memorials lately. Both good -- warm, remembering, informal. But I've been to some really awful ones. In the good ones, those who leave with a less intimate relationship always say "I wish I knew him/her better." In the bad ones they say "Thank God it's over!"

    I have given Rick specific instructions about my funeral. I want him to take my photo albums and let people take pictures out that have them in it or that they really like. And I want party favors -- give away all my Christmas decorations so people will have a nice take-away for their tree the following Christmas. I think I finally got to him, because when he heard the song "We Need a Little Christmas" in its context from "Mame," he said "I'll have people sing this and it'll be at the theatre and when they sing, we'll roll out all your Christmas trees and let people come on down." I hope he doesn't wimp out. At least there won't be two warring families trying to one-up each other with their choices. But boy -- what a beautiful photo of the final resting place.

  21. Funerals and funeral rites are strange things. I have a post on funerals myself that I haven't published yet having been to two in one week last month.

  22. I'm always a little puzzled by those who say they don't want a funeral. I'm of the opinion that a funeral service is more for the living than for the dead. It closes the book on a person's life and allows for a dedicated time of grieving and focusing on the loss of someone loved (ideally). Warring families would alter the situation considerably.

  23. Great post as usual, Friko. I guess this man did not believe in population control ….The last funeral I attended was of a pilot I worked with. I guess he was an Elvis Prestley fan because during the whole service Elvis was singing softly. It was kind of odd to listen to the eulogy while hearing “My Blue Suede Shoes” and “Are you lonesome tonight?” in the background.

  24. It has been a while since I attended a funeral. An old saying is that they come in three's. And, as best as memory serves me, I believe that's true. I wonder when the next first one will be.

  25. Death and dying...never involved in enough of them to do it well or to figure out what to do when I die.

  26. Friko, so nice of you to stop by and visit. Funerals here in the Midwest can be like a party. And yes, every family has their secrets and fighting amongst members. When my aunt died, my granddaughter was four. She thanked my cousin and said, "This is the most fun funeral I have ever been to." If only they could all be a celebration of life.

  27. A cardboard coffin and "Flowers of the Forest", followed by a good meal would be my choice but , since I won't actually be there to finalise it , who knows what I'll get .
    Our 90 year-old neighbour got Rod Stewart's "We are Sailing " thanks to her slightly ga-ga family .

  28. I always ejnoy your perspective - even on funerals. I have been to many and of all kinds. The worst are the young. I hope to go out with a host of flowers - and a lot of food for my guests.

  29. Dear Friko, what a haunting poem. It's a whole novel in four short stanzas. I've started memorizing poetry again and I'm going to cut and paste this one into a file for my next effort. Right now I'm working on "Ulysses" by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I haven't been to a funeral since 2011 when my cousin died and I gave the eulogy. I spoke too long but she was so dear to me and so courageous throughout her life and in her long illness. I wanted to recall to everyone just whom we'd lost. But really, I could have done that with fewer words! I don't know why I allowed myself to cover every base. Peace.

  30. I'm not one for funerals. I want to be cremated--no funeral--and my ashes spread someplace useful or pretty. I don't care which. ;)

  31. worst funeral i ever went to was a family of four killed in a plane crash.

    i was trying to think if i've ever been to any really good funerals, like with a party and such, but no. all the ones i've gone to were spectacularly horrid: beloved teacher accidentally electrocuted first day home from his honeymoon, soldier killed in the war and "god hates fags" on the curb.

    no, no... i was at a good funeral once. there were silver bells and a reading from a picture book and the assembled crowd howled like wolves and there was singing and dinner and a dance.

    properly done.

  32. I knew I would enjoy your perspective an wit!

  33. Only you could make such an interesting post about funerals. I've been to many over the years, and like you said, the gathering after the funeral is usually a time for great get togethers. I know many eschew having funerals these days. My aunt's family decided to have a gathering at my cousin's home rather than have a funeral. I guess that is what my aunt wanted. She was never really mentioned during the entire time I was there except when I spoke with my uncle, who had been unfaithful so many times during their long marriage. He was quite broken up by her death and spoke how she always stayed by his side. I left the gathering feeling quite empty. I wished she'd had kicked him out and stuck to her guns years ago, but in the end it turned out he did love her, but I'm not sure she loved him. I think she stayed because she didn't know what else to do. Wow, this is a long comment where I just wanted to say that usually I think funerals are comforting for those left behind, but not always. Sometimes we leave a funeral a bit confused about the person's life was really all about.


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