The Language of Death (or, Why Can’t We Talk About What Actually Happens?)

Since my mom died, I’ve noticed a phenomenon: people avoid the word “death” and all its conjugates.  They pull on latex gloves of language and hide behind germ filter masks of syntax, treating the subject as if it were contagious, substituting cumbersome IMG_20130404_165651_005euphemisms like “passed away,” “passed,” or the clinically sterile preference of health care practitioners, “expired.”

These people who recoil when I say “my mother died” are probably the same ones (and I’m assuming here, because I’ve never broached the subject with them) who regard the funeral practices of yesteryear as morbid.  I admit even I find it a little distasteful to think of a deceased (dead) relative lying in state in a flower-bedecked parlor for the days leading up to the funeral, allowing family members to bear eyewitness to the various stages of decay and putrefaction that naturally commence postmortem.  But aren’t we modern-day mourners truly the more morbid, so afraid are we of the eventuality of death that we cannot even speak of it directly?

Perhaps these people who shun the word “dead” are coming for a place of personal denial, like the well-meaning friend who pronounced my blog “depressing” because I repeatedly addressed the apparently unsettling (frightening?) subjects of death, loss, and grief after my mom died, here in the very public pages of my Naked Notebook.

Still, I find myself editing my delivery when I speak of death according to who is on the receiving end of my discourse.  Do I go with the apparently harsh and controversial “when my mom died,” or do I soften the words, speaking of when she “passed away?”

It seems an odd treatment for the thing – arguably the only thing – that every single human being shall unavoidably do.  Death, the universal equalizer.  It also seems inaccurate, even a lie in many cases.  The deaths that I have witnessed have been just that: deaths.  Organisms do not “pass away” in a peaceful, dreamy state of acceptance and nonattachment – they die.  “Passing away” implies resignation, even reconciliation with the inevitable, and in most cases it just isn’t so.

Our bodies die, and biologically they are designed to want to live, to struggle for life, to cling to that “last breath” everybody is always talking about.  They die gasping and heaving and clawing for life.  And yet they die, taking the spirit with them, body and soul conjoined twins who share a heart.

As a (sometimes reluctant) member of polite society, I’ve told people my mom “passed away” more times than I’d like to admit, anticipating their discomfort if I were to choose the more direct “died.”  It’s a choice of convenience, when telling the truth isn’t particularly pertinent to the exchange at hand.  But for the record, she didn’t pass away.  She died.  And I don’t mind talking about it.

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2 thoughts on “The Language of Death (or, Why Can’t We Talk About What Actually Happens?)

  1. I do the same thing when talking to others about death…part of my job. I waste my intuitive skills trying to figure out what euphemism will best fit the conversation. Not enough room in this reply to speculate about all the probable cultural causes responsible for this, but I think you captured the biggest culprit…fear.

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