De mortuis nil nisi bonum

The Latin phrases De mortuis nihil nisi bonum ("Of the dead, nothing unless good") and De mortuis nil nisi bene [dicendum] ("Of the dead, nothing [spoken] unless well (truthfully)") indicate that it is socially inappropriate to speak ill of the dead. As a mortuary aphorism, De mortuis. . . . derives from the Latin sentence De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est ("Of the dead nothing but good is to be said"), which also is abbreviated as Nil nisi bonum. 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".

Chilon of Sparta coined the phrase De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. (ca. 600 BC)
The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laërtius (1594)

The first recorded use of the phrase of mortuary respect dates from the 4th century, published in the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (ca. AD 300), Book 1, Chapter 70, by Diogenes Laërtius, wherein the Greek aphorism τὸν τεθνηκóτα μὴ κακολογεῖν (“Don’t badmouth a dead man”) is attributed to Chilon of Sparta (ca. 600 BC), one of the Seven Sages of Greece. In the 15th century, during the Italian Renaissance, the humanist monk Ambrogio Traversari translated Diogenes’s Greek book into Latin, as Laertii Diogenis vitae et sententiae eorum qui in philosophia probati fuerunt (1433), and so popularized De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, the Latin aphorism advising respect for the dead.[1]



Short story
The bush poet and balladeer Adam Lindsay Gordon, Melbourne.

We eat and drink, we come and go,
(The sunlight dies upon the open sea.)
I speak in riddles. Is it so?
My riddles need not mar your glee;
For I will neither bid you share
My thoughts, nor will I bid you shun,
Though I should see in yonder chair
Th’ Egyptian’s muffled skeleton.
One toast with me, your glasses fill,
Aye, fill them level with the brim,
De mortuis, nisi bonum, nil!
The lights are growing dim.

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

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.

The poem, “The Open Grave”, is in the collection, Vita Nova (1999).
In Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915), Sigmund Freud denounced the cultural stupidity that was the First World War (1914–18); yet, in the essay “Our Attitude Towards Death”, recognised the humanity of the participants, and the respect owed them in the mortuary phrase De mortuis nil nisi bene.


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.[3]


The playwright Anton Chekhov.



  1. Traversari, Ambrogio (1432). Benedictus Brognolus, ed. Laertii Diogenis vitae et sententiae eorvm qvi in philosophia probati fvervnt (in Latin). Venice: Impressum Venetiis per Nicolaum Ienson gallicum. Retrieved 12 May 2013.
  2. Morley, Christopher (1919). The Haunted Bookshop. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
  3. Freud, Sigmund. "Our Attitude Towards Death". Thoughts for the Times on War and Death. Retrieved 24 April 2013.
  4. Chekhov, Anton; Stephen Mulrine, Translator (1997). The Seagull. London: Nick Hern Books Ltd. pp. Introduction, p. xvii. ISBN 1-85459-193-2.
  5. Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar.
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