Why do we speak gently of death?
Because death is the sleeping monster at the center of an inescapable room, and to speak its name is to awaken it, and draw its attention, and number yourself next.
Because death is a weird stranger of whom we’ve only heard second-hand stories, and if you have nothing wise or withering or winning to say, you must say nothing at all.
Because death is the saddest thing that can happen to a person, and to speak of death causes a stab of disembodied, non-specific, spiritual pain to shoot out into the world and lodge in someone’s heart.
(Every time someone says the word “death,” a precious fairy dies of spontaneous fairy combustion.)
Euphemisms: circumlocution. To talk around a thing; to avoid the thing head-on. To call the thing “the thing,” instead of “death” or “dying.”
To talk circles around something, or someone, is to outwit them; to make circles around something is to enclose it, to make oneself safe against it, like the body’s white blood cells enclosing and destroying microscopic invaders, or the old superstition of lining windows and thresholds with salt to keep out evil spirits and witches. So it is with careful words and phrases that we try to encircle and enclose death, which is a far more common occurrence than being bothered by witches, who seem generally content these days to bother no one but each other.
We dress up our words and phrases the same way we dress up the dead themselves: we make them pretty, we make them palatable; we make them not what they are. Euphemisms are lies, of a sort, at once harmless and harmful: why not take some of the existential horror out of life, we ask? Well, because we have overshot the mark, and continue to overshoot, until the majority of people in developed countries don’t think about or deal with death or dying until someone has actually died… which is, by all accounts, too late. The long-term effects of denying death our attention seems to be a deep-seated, indescribable fear of dying, and when the one thing – the only thing – any person is guaranteed in life, is death, it’s little wonder we’re suffering a crisis of mortality.
The culture of delicacy around death seems, again, harmless – being careful about your words and actions is wise and kind when someone is emotionally vulnerable. Yet couching phrases in euphemisms only reinforces the idea that death is to be avoided at all costs. Even when you’re staring death in the face – even when grief has torn your heart from your chest, and you cannot breathe for the unbearable darkness that has taken its place – you are discouraged from acknowledging it, especially in public, where displays of emotion, however heartfelt and universal, are generally looked upon with a degree of embarrassment.
We say to the bereaved, “I’m sorry for your loss,” because to say “I’m sorry your mother is deceased” is gauche, and ghoulish, and uncouth, even though that’s exactly what happened. To be uncouth in the presence of death is akin to being animalistic; might as well pull one of mom’s legs out of the casket and start noshing.
We say, “He passed away,” and “He’s gone home,” and “He’s gone to [insert your chosen deity here],” because we don’t know exactly where he went (‘he’ being the heart and soul, the bits where our love resided, since we know where the physical leftovers went, more or less), and the knowledge that death is, as far as we know, an absolute and final separation from that which we love is frightening beyond measure.
We say, “She kicked the bucket,” and “She’s pushing up daisies,” and “She bought the farm,” because these phrases are pithy, and by poking dark fun at death, you take away a measure of its power. We sit astride the great immovable beast and kick it with our heels, because we are terrified of being trampled by it.
(Euphemisms. Circumlocution. Harmless in small amounts, toxic when used chronically.)
Is it morbid, then, to call something what it is? Perhaps we, as a culture, should become a bit more morbid, because talking around death doesn’t take away our final understanding of it; it doesn’t take away the terrible impact a loss has upon us. It only takes away our ability to connect with another human being in our need and suffering, which is a tragedy almost as great as the loss itself.
We speak gently of death, then, because it speaks gently to us, whispering into each ear, as we have one finger pressed to its lips, and one pressed to our own.