We are the Kings and Queens of the Realm of Euphemisms

07mountmuncie00At one of the churches I served, I offered a class entitled, “Living Fully, Dying Well.” It was designed to help the participants learn and share about their views on . . . Death.

I asked the group of mostly parents, ranging in age from 30s to 70s, “What was harder, talking to your children about sex or death?” Everyone had had the sex talk. But many hadn’t chatted about—or hinted at—dying and death, even with their adult children. We avoid death like the plague. Hey, we even avoid the word. Our culture has created—and frequently uses—dozens of banal to bizarre euphemisms to give death as wide a berth as possible.

Crossed the Jordan…Departed…Dreamless sleep…Entered the pearly gates…Expired…Gave up the ghost…Had the last curtain call…Kicked the bucket…Laid to rest…Left the room like Elvis…Left us…Met Davy Jones…Met his maker…Passed…Passed on…Passed over…Perished…Returned to dust…Shook hands with Jesus…Six feet under…Sleeps with the fishes…Succumbed…Surrendered…Taken by angels…Taken by God…Taken up to heaven…The big sleep…Was lost…Went home with God…

Can you think of phrases or words I’m missing? I suspect you could, and I haven’t searched for what the Germans or Kenyans or Chinese might say. I’m quite confident other words from other cultures and religions would quickly expand the list.

At the hospice where I work, I listen to the nurses and social workers share about death. I read the medical charts and the notes doctors make. I’m not breaching confidence when I say the professionals and the official charting also avoid death. Variations of the patient passed are popular. I get it. I understand that passed on or passed over reflect the faith tradition of earth and heaven, of passing from the known land of fast food, area codes and cloverleaf freeway exchanges to the Biblical dream of paradise. Or it’s possible the professionals simply don’t want to overuse the inevitable word, “died.” Or maybe they are uncomfortable too?

When I make bereavement calls in my hospice work, I always say death or died. I prefer the truest and simplest words when I talk to a grieving loved one because maybe, just maybe, my choice of words will model honesty for the whole conversation. But whatever words I speak—or whatever words I avoid using for my so-called honest attempts at honesty—death will enter my life and break me down. It will. Soon, my thirteen-year old dog Hannah will die. I will be a wreck, and there’s nothing I can do about it. My puppy’s not the worst of my today or tomorrow encounter with death. It would be easy—and yet nearly impossible—to create the short list of the deaths of friends or family whose death would devastate me. It is like that for all of us.

And so we use words to avoid the unavoidable. We are the Kings and Queens of the Realm of Euphemisms. Still, words are all we’ve got, and I hope you’ll be honest with your loved ones about what you want in your dying and in your death while you’re still a citizen of this known land of fast food, area codes and people that love you more than life itself.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Image from here.

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  1. Some seven decades ago I noticed,as children will do, that some folk “went on ahead” usually toward morning. My unsubstantiated notion is that in our white trash diaspora from Virginia to Oklahoma the men went on ahead after unsuccessfully farming a worthless bit of sharecropping land in order to find and prepare another equally worthless plot of ground. I also noticed after a few years that not everybody went on ahead (known thieves, wife beaters, triflers, certain law enforcement types, those without the grit to stick it out and went to California, republicans et al did not go ahead . They simply died. IT seemed to be bad form to comment on their death one way or the other. I, of course understood that they were now residing in a clime even warmer than Oklahoma. Perhaps I have matured or regressed in my spiritual journey. I agree with C. S. Lewis that they are as they would wish completely isolato eternally in love with themselves. For good or ill I find it less alarming as the days pass that I must go on ahead. Despite my fundamentalist upbringing I have a notion that there will be work to be done. As Twain noted, a week in the fundamentalist idea of heaven enough punishment to last for an eternity

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