Transporting the dear departed euphemisms

[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”‘.

24 Responses to Transporting the dear departed euphemisms

  1. stuartnz says:

    On this subject, I’ve been wondering about “pased away” vs. “passed”, and whether the latter really is becoming more common than the former, or whether it’s just another example of US TV’s banalisation/bowdlerisation.

    I personally don’t consider “funeral director” to be a euphemism, though. Many funerals are productions of a scale easily sufficient to require a director. Whereas “passed away” is clearly designed to blur or soften a harsh reality, “funeral director” seems like an unambiguous job description. For all I know, it may have been coined as euphemism, but I’ve never perceived it as such, nor heard it used as such, in the way that people who use euphemisms for “dying” make it obvious by their tone and manner of speaking that they are consciously euphemising it.

  2. Vinetta Bell says:

    Stan, thanks for an interesting post. Please consider how hospital trauma staff describe death. For example, the leader of the trauma team “calls it” when all efforts to resuscitate are ended, and death means the person has “expired.” I hope your weather in Ireland is enjoyable. We’re expecting the first storm of the season in North Carolina later this week.

  3. John Cowan says:

    I expire too, but I always inspire afterwards (so far so good). I am happy with cremains, however, as ashes is seriously misleading about the nature of the substance, which consists of dried and pulverized bone and is much more like gravel than like ashes. (My parents were cremated, and I buried the cremains on my own land.)

    Personally, I would prefer the Klingon way of death: one good loud scream by the friends and family of the deceased, and then tip the corpse down the disposal chute. However, human-run trash-collection services are not yet able to deal with human bodies, though the body parts of steers and chickens seem to be within their remit. A direct transfer to the crematorium (thus bypassing the expensive and pointless “funeral home”) must suffice for me and mine.

  4. Stan says:

    Stuart: I hadn’t thought about passed vs. passed away (passed on is another variation). Your assessment of funeral director is fair; I don’t really see it as a euphemism either. There’s a case to be made that it’s a rather inflated title, but I don’t mind it. At least there’s no sign of funeral curator gaining currency.

    Vinetta: Another interesting aspect of such work is the use of dark humour – probably a necessary or at least helpful distancing device. I hope your storm isn’t too severe. After a very pleasant week or two in Ireland it has turned wet and windy again, and looks like being unsettled for the rest of the week.

    John: The first time I encountered cremains it struck me as too indecorously neat a portmanteau, but that was a hasty reaction born of unfamiliarity. It soon came to seem a fitting enough term, and it is more accurate than ashes, as you say. A good loud scream, or a few, can be quite cathartic, but it’s hard to see the practice ever being adopted ritually in our sober institutions. You could suggest it all the same.

    • seajay23 says:

      contrary to popular belied cremation doesn’t leave a fine pile of ashes. The remains have to be put through a cremulator to break them down to small particles and ash and enanle to removal of metallic pieces such as coffin nails.
      So cremains is a good word for what comes out of the cremulator.

  5. Hi Stan. I love your newsletter! Here’s a poem I wrote a few years back on this week’s subject. Note that it does contain swear words.

    Keep ’em coming!

    Ken Grace

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Out here “At Rest” is over-used on obits. I am yet to see “Dead”. I would like it on mine. We duck and weave and avoid. Shame really. Reality is not a human strong suit.


  7. Stan says:

    Ken, thanks. No sign of that poem, though – did you mean to include a link?

    WWW: I’d say dead is often avoided because it doesn’t sufficiently connote an afterlife (unlike at rest and co.).

  8. N Wainwright says:

    I ain’t goin’ nowhere in a “casket coach.”

  9. Flop says:

    I used to work in the kitchen of an aged care home. In written word, and in front of management or the public, it was always “passed away”, but when talking to nurses and other workers we always used “died”. We had a blackboard outside the staff room, and when there was a death in the home, often we would just see a name, a date, and a time.

  10. Stan says:

    N Wainwright: It may be beyond our control to decide.

    Seajay: I agree, and cremulator is a cromulent word.

    Flop: Thanks for the insight. It’s interesting that you made that distinction in practice.

  11. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Thought I’d add a few more familiar, some admittedly cliched, euphemistic phrases (and pointed words) for addressing the fact that someone has died.

    They include:

    — gone to the great beyond
    — met one’s Maker
    — bit the dust (or the bullet)
    — gone to a better place
    — slipped the bounds (or bonds?) of this mortal coil
    — checked out… for good
    — met their ultimate demise
    — plum croaked (harsh, and slightly slangy, IMHO)
    — ‘transitioned’
    — expired
    — now they’re communing with the angels
    — took their last breath
    — gone to the other side

    Q—Why did the true believer pass thru the pearly gates?

    A— Why… to get to the ‘other side’. (Groan)

    • Vinetta Bell says:

      Please consider these biblical allusions Herman Melville uses in his short story, Bartleby (the Scriviner) when the lawyer-narrator confirms that Bartleby is dead: (1) Job 3:11-22 and (2) II Chronicles 9 (See the 1611 KJV version of the Bible).

  12. quixote says:

    Not a euphemism, but I still laugh when I think about it. I taught at a community college many years ago and they followed the usual convention of three letter abbreviation plus course number in their catalogue. Basic courses in Biology, English, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering showed up as BIO 101, ENG 101 and AME 101. They also had a department that trained future funeral house workers. The first course was FUN 101.

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