Never say die: euphemisms for death and how they can affect the grieving process

The French writer and philosopher Voltaire once wrote: “One great use of words is to hide our thoughts.” Voltaire’s words are a great and simple explanation of why people use euphemisms, in that they allow us to substitute a word or phrase that we find difficult to articulate for something less awkward, tricky or upsetting. And surely there is no other topic of discussion that makes us feel more uncomfortable, in the UK at least, than death and funerals.

Imagine being an alien from another planet, freshly arrived from a distant galaxy and busy getting to know humankind (or at least the members of it that happen to live in the UK) by joining a group of them for a drink. You’re listening to the chatter around the table and then this happens:

Did you hear that Dave bought the farm?”

“Really? When did pass away?”

“Friday. Everyone’s in shock – no one expected him to kick the bucket like that.”

“Well, at least he had a good innings before he popped his clogs.”

“True. He’s in a better place now – but I can’t believe we’ve lost him so close to Christmas.”

“Yep, another one bites the dust.”

Would you have any idea what was being discussed?!

Today, we rarely have first-hand experience with the dying and the dead. Families are much less likely to care for their own deceased relative’s body or have their coffin in the front room. Death is managed away from public view by a whole host of fantastic professions, funeral directing included. However, not only have we become much more physically removed from death but, arguably, we have also distanced ourselves ideologically from it too.

In his article on metaphors and euphemisms for death, Michael C Kearl argues that the modern mind abstracts death as a shielding mechanism, “further buffering itself from death’s horror, through the use of metaphor and euphemism when describing the dead. In daily conversations the deceased tend to pass or fade away, embark on a desired trip to meet their eternal reward or loved ones (“Grandpa is back with Grandma”) or merely fall asleep (“She earned her rest”).”

There are, of course, many cultures in the world that have no such fear of speaking death’s name. Somehow I suspect that Mexico’s famous annual festival would have significantly less impact if it was called Day of the Resting which, somehow, sounds like a state of being that many of us try (and often fail) to achieve on holiday!

For me, there’s a refreshing frankness in the title Day of the Dead, not to mention the glorious and unabashed way that the Mexican people – and many other cultures – address death head on, viewing it as a part of life, a fact.

However, with only 11% of people in this country planning ahead for their own death and funeral, there is clearly a huge reluctance to think – let alone speak – about it in plain terms, so can we ever hope to achieve the same level of comfort and frankness in the UK that other cultures enjoy?

For many industry observers the excessive use of euphemisms relating to death and funerals is actively contributing to the denial of death that still exists in western cultures. Grief experts are almost unanimous in their view that this form of avoidance, however well meant, has a detrimental impact on our ability to process and come to terms with a loss and that it’s high time the UK became more comfortable with saying words like ”dying”, ”died”, ”dead” and, yes, ”funeral” too.

Within the sector it might be a word we use all the time but, in everyday conversation, it’s still a word and topic of conversation to be avoided wherever possible.

Bereavement consultant Anne Wadey remains concerned that, however well-intentioned, the use of euphemisms can get in the way of a proper and healthy grieving process.

“All models and theories of bereavement include the necessity to understand that someone has died and the bereaved person’s life will change as a consequence. The language we use when talking with bereaved people can be a real clue to how we see our role with them. We should be able to use the real words and be comfortable doing so. This helps to normalise the experience for bereaved people at a time when they can be feeling isolated and different.

“I have been told by people who work in funeral directing that they have been instructed only ever to refer to the person who died by name and never as a body. I have also noticed that people have no difficulty referring to a death certificate, using an impersonal noun relating to a document. However, they do have immense trouble asking when someone “died”. This is a verb and apparently more threatening as something that happens to people.

“A euphemism may reflect genuine belief – for example “crossed over” – but is usually a defence mechanism. As with all sensitive topics, I always start my discussion (with bereaved families) by asking whether they would prefer me to use plain, blunt terms. The answer is always positive. It seems that people are relieved that someone is prepared to ‘call a spade a spade’ in terms they would be able to understand. I also ask them to stop me if they feel I am over-stepping the line of what they could cope with in terms of plain speaking.”

As professionals working closely with bereaved people soon after death, funeral directors have the privilege of assisting with the difficult change in a bereaved person’s perception of the person who has died.

It is, perhaps, worth considering what language you choose in your work in the funeral profession. By avoiding using plain terms are you at risk of actively colluding with bereaved people in denying the fact of death – or are you simply being sensitive to their acute grief?

Anne concludes: “If a bereaved person chooses a euphemism, that is their privilege. However, as professionals I believe we can use plain English real words with compassion and assist families with their grief rather than denying the reality of what they are dealing with.”