Wednesday, 2 March 2011

New post-mortem technique adrift in euphemisms?

"So far, the technique has been tested on 33 deceased individuals."
(BBC News website)

So why don't they test it on some dead people? Or even - bodies? Breaking news for the BBC to catch - a body isn't an individual, i.e. a person. It's what a person leaves behind, or it's the end of a person, depending on your beliefs. We can and should treat it with respect, show compassion to those who loved the person, and all the other attitudes that we exhibit post-mortem (in every sense) but we also need to describe it accurately. Euphemisms can help us take care of each other, but they do so at the risk of confusing our view of the world.

We need clear language to help us come to terms with and respect our mortality, just as we need an end to the fog of euphemisms used during modern conflicts if we are to understand what happens when we go to war. What happens as a result of "surgical air strikes" (i.e. bombing) is "deceased individuals" (i.e. the bodies of people who've been killed.)

vide, if you haven't already, George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language." Dated contextual details, but still true. Or truer than ever.

Sorry to get the morning off to a slightly bleak start, but really, BBC, get a bloody grip on your language.


  1. How about

    "Fallen sleep"
    "Passed away"
    "Bought the farm"
    "No longer with us"

    Also; I was recently filming a training DVD for doctors, which was about conversations between doctors and people who were about to die.

    Real doctors and health professionals, role played die-ees.

    "Have you had any thoughts about future care?"
    seemed an interesting euphemism for where do you want to die.

    Also, I struggled to keep the camera steady during:

    "Yes, well I think I'd like to go to a hospice. . . but I suppose there's a waiting list. . "

    "Well, Bob, it's surprising how often vacancies come up".

    I also liked the conversation about a father's future care plan which was concluded with

    "Well nothing's set in stone. . ."

  2. Good post and raises important stuff.

    Long before I became a celebrant, I did a day course in bereavement counselling which was run by a local Cruse counsellor. She made a similar observation that when people are talking about "passing over", "moving on" etc, she makes a gentle point of saying "died" and "death".

    Clarity is, perhaps the most important thing. Of course we should be kind, gentle and respectful, but we must also be honest. Nobody can possibly deal with the grieving if they don't accept the death.

    And, Arkayeff, great comments - "bought the farm" - that's a new one on me!

  3. Re Ark, a friend of mine died recently. Before he did he was visited by a doctor from the hospice who wanted to map with him his care plan. My friend stuck throughout to calling it a death plan -- because that's exactly what it was; it spelled out where interventions were not to be made. A care plan, he said, is for people who are going to get well. His term for his treatment was politely ignored.

    While 'deceased' is one of the most unpleasant words in the English language, I am impressed by the shock value of the c-word. Extraordinary how people cover their ears at the sound of 'corpse'.

  4. Charles, I salute your friend's clear sight and the courage of his honesty, and I'm disappointed in his doctor's response.

    And XP, "Nobody can possibly deal with the grieving if they don't accept the death." It really is as simple as that, isn't it? I didn't realise this so clearly when I started out, but perhaps instinctively, I felt I needed to work the dreaded death-word in quite early on in a family visit, and watch the response, to guide me in my script-writing. But whatever the reaction, I've always and every time said ...."who died on the ... at the age of..." in those first few words.It just seems a simple matter of professional honesty - respect for the dead person, perhaps. No doubt others might disagree, and feel it's kinder to a family, if they used "passed away" etc. But remember old Spike M: "'Only sleeping?' Who does he think he's kidding?"

    Phew. All this before lunch. I must go and do something silly now.

    Thanks all for good and helpful comments.

  5. But just before I go: corpse. Corpse. Corpse. There,that's better, a little exposure therapy. I've always found the c-word a bit difficult, and yet it's the most accurate.

    A body is inspired (root Latin to breathe into)by a life, a body is a life, a human life on this planet, even if you believe in spirits. When the life is over, the body is - something else. So perhaps you can't have a body without a life. That's: a corpse.

    "Words, words, words," said Hamlet, and look what happened to him...nevertheless, with an exposed sort of function such as ours (well, in any function really) we must struggle to get the right words or ...we're back to deceased individuals, who have been betrayed by a diseased language.

    Now I really will totter off and do something useful. -ish.

  6. Here! Here! Stop this bloody euphemism nonsense. Here's one I read only yesterday 'putting down your knife and fork'. Whaaaaaaat?!!

  7. When my father died his unlamented death I betook myself to the Registrar who handed me the Cert and, by gum, the d-word really struck me (as well as the admin procedure of having him struck off as a statistic, or reconfigured as another sort of statistic. So I think celebrants can play an important part in helping people to take the word in. Because if you can't handle the word, you arguably can't handle the event.

  8. On the RSA site there's a wonderful animated lecture about the way in which we use language and euphemism as a legitimate way to introduce ambiguity into conversation. The suggestion is that it creates safe spaces where intentions can be softened or meaning disguised. One of the examples used is the phrase 'come up and see my etchings'. We all know what the intention is, but it's easier to use the euphemism both in asking and refusing without (too much) offence.

    It's worth seeing. It's called Language: a window into human nature:

    Of course for us as celebrants the issues are slightly different. We are like the funeral director in a privileged position. There is less ambiguity about our relationship with the person who has died, their relatives or the event itself. It makes our relationship with the fact of what has happened much more straightforward and factual. We don't need the euphemisms - but I'm not so sure about how this impacts on our conversations with families and friends. Is it right to take the attitude that, however unprepared they are, when someone dies they step at once into our world of death, cadavers and corpses? Or should be sensitive to the emotional journey they are travelling? How much is part of our role as celebrants to help them make the journey?

    By the way my favourite phrase is one of Georgette Heyer's. On a man who found he had married an appalling women, she wrote: "he saw which way the wind was blowing, rolled over and stuck his spoon into the wall".

  9. Thanks, Vale, will check the vid, sounds good. Your "sensitive to the emotional journey they are travelling" is the only option, I think, so I wouldn't be brutal with the language, of course - but will try to get everyone present to at least acknowledge at the outset, whatever gentler things may be said later on, that the person is dead, not gone before, only sleeping, passing over, or indeed has stuck his spoon into the wall.(!?)
    But one little motto I try to remember is that whatever emotional temperature you aim for, some people there will be less, and some more, comfortable with it. Even within a family, sometimes. Least, that's how I read the signals, though it is very difficult to be sure about these things.