[Trigger warning if you're grieving, or sensitive about death.]
Death is often called the great leveller; it’s also the great euphemised. I have a book on euphemisms with a full chapter devoted to it, and I’m sure that’s not unusual in the niche. The idea of death also recurs in slang and metaphor, as Jonathon Green shows here, at least some of the time for similar reasons of delicacy and evasiveness.
I was leafing through George Carlin’s book Brain Droppings the other day and found a vivid comparison of direct vs. euphemistic language in the specific area of funerals and burial (bold text in the original):
Seems to me it wasn’t long ago that when an old person died the undertaker put him in a coffin, and you sent flowers to the funeral home where the mortician held the wake. Then, after the funeral, they put him in a hearse and drove him to the cemetery, where they buried his body in a grave.
Now when a senior citizen passes away, he is placed in a burial container, and you send floral tributes to the slumber room where the grief therapist supervises the viewing. After the memorial service, the funeral coach transports the departed to the garden of remembrance, where his earthly remains are interred in their final resting place.
Lined up like that, the point is well made. It echoes something I read earlier in the year in The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford, a book that describes in some detail the treadmill of funeral-related euphemisms over several decades. It is worth quoting at length:
Dale Carnegie has written that in the lexicon of the successful man there is no such word as “failure.” So have the funeral men managed to delete the word “death” and all its associations from their vocabulary. They have from time to time published lists of In and Out words and phrases to be memorized and used in connection with the final return of dust to dust; then, still dissatisfied with the result, have elaborated and revised the list. Thus, a 1916 glossary substitutes “prepare body” for “handle corpse.” Today, though, “body” is Out and “remains” or “Mr. Jones” is In.
“The use of improper terminology by anyone affiliated with a mortuary should be strictly forbidden,” declares Edward A. Martin. He suggests a rather thorough overhauling of the language; his deathless words include: “service, not funeral; Mr., Mrs., Miss Blank, not corpse or body; preparation room, not morgue; casket, not coffin; funeral director or mortician, not undertaker; reposing room or slumber room, not laying-out room; display room, not showroom; baby or infant, not stillborn; deceased, not dead; autopsy or post-mortem, not post; casket coach, not hearse; shipping case, not shipping box; flower car, not flower truck; cremains or cremated remains, not ashes; clothing, dress, suit, etc., not shroud; drawing room, not parlor.”
This rather basic list was refined in 1956 by Victor Landig in his Basic Principles of Funeral Service. He enjoins the reader to avoid using the word “death” as much as possible, even sometimes when such avoidance may seem impossible; for example, a death certificate should be referred to as a “vital statistics form.” One should speak not of the “job” but rather of the “call.” We do not “haul” a dead person, we “transfer” or “remove” him—and we do this in a “service car,” not a “body car.” We “open and close” his grave rather than dig and fill it, and in it we “inter” rather than bury him. This is done not in a graveyard or cemetery, but rather in a “memorial park.” The deceased is beautified, not with makeup, but with “cosmetics.” Anyway, he didn’t die, he “expired.”
Mitford revisits the topic a couple of times over the course of her book (which is superb, though it has inevitably dated in some ways), with particular attention paid to coffin vs. casket and funeral director vs. various alternatives. I think Thomas Lynch, undertaker and poet, has written about this too, but I don’t have his essay collections to hand.
It’s an understandable reaction to shrink from the blunt finality of death by whatever semantic shuffling can be devised. But when euphemistic jargon piles up this high the game can come to seem excessive, even burlesque. I can’t be the only one for whom vital statistics form conjures an image of cartoon characters.
Edit: By a fine coincidence, Marc Leavitt, whose astute and poetic comments will be familiar to regular readers of Sentence first, wrote on the same subject today. Read his poem ‘Just call me “old”‘.