The most despicable living man’s state, is preferable to that of the most noble who have died impenitent. Thus, it is better to be a live coward than a dead hero.
Origin: To him that is joined to all the living, there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. [Ecclesiastes 9:4]
When read in context, what the proverb really teaches is hope, because while there is life there is hope and a dead person, whatever important and noble he could have been, cannot change anything.