The Power of Legacy
She didn't know why she'd been asleep all that time. Should he tell her, and betray that memory, even if it was false? No, of course he shouldn't.—Will Parry, The Amber Spyglass
The mission is over. The MacGuffin has been acquired, the Big Bad has been defeated, and the Hero is on his way home. Unfortunately, it is a bittersweet victory: Bob was killed during the mission, dying just in time for the Hero to hear his last words. Upon his return, the Hero meets Alice, who was very close to Bob, often a significant other, and must perform a Death Notification. She asks the hero what Bob's last words were. The hero, compassionate guy that he is, takes her hand, looks her in the eyes, and...
The hero has a good reason for doing this, however. At the end of his life, Bob did something that would tarnish his legacy. Maybe his last words were High Octane Nightmare Fuel. Perhaps he did a Face Heel Turn. Whatever the reason, telling Alice the truth would only result in damaging Bob's legacy, as well as hurting Alice by knocking down someone she held as a hero. Even if the hero has never told a lie up to that point, he will find it best to strech the truth so that Bob can be remembered fondly. If this takes place at the end of the story, the hero will get away with it, but if the story goes on after the hero's lie then it will usually come back to bite him in the butt.
Note that this is the same trope whether the character outright lies or delibrately fails to mention the fact that would taint his friend's legacy. Also note, the Power of Legacy is used to defend a character's honor. If they lie/keep silent to shame the person in question, or to just prevent Alice from hearing his last words when they would actually help his legacy, that's being a Jerkass.
Related to Never Speak Ill of the Dead.
- Deconstructed, then averted in Preacher (Comic Book): When Jesse is hanging on to Cassidy from a plane, he tells Cassidy to tell Tulip he loves her, then orders him to let go. Cassidy then reveals himself by telling Tulip he couldn't hear what he said. But at the very end, Cassidy's goodbye letter explains to Tulip what Jesse had really told him.
- In the original Judas Contract arc of Teen Titans, the other Titans gave Terra a hero's funeral, a statue in their hall, and told everyone (including her half-brother, Geo-Force) that she died a hero. The truth was that she was The Mole and Evil All Along.
- The Dark Knight: Batman takes the blame for Two-Face's actions, in order to keep Harvey Dent's "White Knight" reputation intact (and to make sure the criminals Harvey put behind bars stay there).
- In Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi-Wan tells Luke about his father, who Luke believes is dead. According to Obi-Wan, Luke's father was "the best star pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior, and a good friend." Whether or not he's actually lying is up for debate (remember the scene between Luke and his ghost on Dagobah), but he does leave out telling Luke about how his father betrayed the Jedi council, crossed over to the dark side, helped kill all the Jedi, including children, etc. Luke remembers his father as a hero until the famous Luke, I Am Your Father scene.
- Probably the most famous example is from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which Kurtz's Famous Last Words were "The horror, the horror!" Marlow, however tells his wife that "His last words were... your name."
- In the Animorphs series the Andalite high command pressure Ax into doing this with his murdered older Elfangor upon learning he used his last minutes to give morphing power to humans. Ax reluctantly takes the blame so that the Andalite citizens can continue remembering his brother as a hero untainted by disgrace. It's a rare case, though, where the decision to do so clearly isn't liked by the main characters, who feel the Andalites' over-enforce their Prime Directive law and because Ax has now been barred from advancing further in the military. He becomes enough of own hero in the end, allowing him to be promoted to prince.
- In The Amber Spyglass, the third book of the His Dark Materials trilogy, Lyra is kept asleep for the first two hundred pages. When she wakes up, she thinks that she may have caught some disease, and that Mrs. Coulter had been taking care of her. In reality, Mrs. Coulter had been drugging her. Will decided it would be better to let her keep the good memory, even if it was a lie.
- In the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Andrew tells Xander that Anya died saving his life, when all indications are she was merely killed during the Final Battle.
- Star Trek: The Original Series, 2nd pilot "Where No Man Has Gone Before". Gary Mitchell gains vast psionic powers and begins to think of himself as a god who regards humans as insects to be crushed. After Captain Kirk manages to kill him:
Kirk: "Captain's log, stardate 1313.8. Add to official losses, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner. Be it noted she gave her life in performance of her duty. Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell. Same notation." (to Spock) I want his service record to end that way. He didn't ask for what happened to him.
- In Firefly, while he wasn't killed, Jayne begged Mal that if he was going to kill him for betraying the Tams, that at least not tell the others that he betrayed them.
- Castle: Beckett decides to do this for Captain Montgomery, and the rest of the cast agrees.
- Ally does this for Billy after his death: she tells Georgia his Last Words were "Tell Georgia I love her", but he'd died in the midst of a tumor-induced hallucination:
Billy: "You see that woman?" (points to Ally) "I've been married to her for 12 years. And every day, when I go home to her... and our kids... it's everything."
- At the end of Metal Gear Solid, Snake gives a rather generic speech about how Grey Fox had wished the best for Naomi, who Fox had practically been a big brother to. Snake decides to skip the part where Grey Fox confessed that he had been the one who had killed Naomi's parents.
- One of the quotes in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri.
Richard Baxton piloted his Recon Rover into a fungal vortex and held off four waves of mind worms, saving an entire colony. We immediately purchased his identity manifests and repackaged him into the Recon Rover Rick character with a multi-tiered media campaign: televids, touchbooks, holos, psi-tours--the works. People need heroes. They don't need to know how he died clawing his eyes out, screaming for mercy. The real story would just hurt sales, and dampen the spirits of our customers.
- In the Trope Naming example from Dominic Deegan, quoted above, the person they were talking about had challenged Donovan to a duel over Donovan's wife just before jumping into a portal to Hell.
- Later, at the end of that story arc, Dominic invokes this when recounting Siegfried's death. Using his second sight, he had seen that Siegfried had held a genocidal campaign against orcs since boyhood, and is now in hell, but just before going to Hell he punched out all of Dominic's teeth. When Milov or Jayden ask how their friend died, Dominic's epitaph paints the knight in a much more heroic light. It comes back to bite him.
- This page of Jack. Lieutenant Bullock recounts how he told a fellow soldier's parents that their son died while pulling wounded men out of a fire. What really happened... well, it wasn't quite as dignified.
- In Order of the Stick, O-Chul accepts responsibility for destroying the gate to protect the already-tarnished-enough legacy of Miko Miyazaki.
- At the end of Buck Godot, Security Chief Parahextavol is revealed to have committed several large-scale crimes in pursuit of his assigned duty, including (but not limited to) genocide and the large-scale enslavement of a sentient race. When confronted with his sins, he continues to claim that he just did what he had to do. The Prime Mover acknowledges this, and decrees that his record shall stand unblemished. Par smiles and thanks him for fulfilling his ultimate wish, even as he is wiped from existence.