Saturday, 30 June 2012

Funereal euphemisms

Before I get into the second part of mindfulness and beliefs, I'll interject a few thoughts about words that we use, sparked by some recent discussion over on the Good Funeral Guide.

To value life, to live enough of the time in the present, to accept the reality of our own mortality and by doing so  to enjoy the richness of existence in the light of its frailty: what stops us? One obstacle can be, I think, our vocabulary about the end of life.

The words we use matter. Mindfulness meditation is concerned with non-verbal realities, but our way into that state may be blocked by euphemism or wooly thinking. Because words are where we live, much of the time. "You must have to see clear sometimes." Someone's death is such a time.

In no particular order:

the deceased:  someone has died, and this distancing formality is no help to anyone, and especially anyone trying to deal with their grief in a truthful way.

funeral director: directing the actual funeral is exactly what most of them don't do. The good old-fashioned term "undertaker" refers to their undertaking to help you deal with a body; it seems to me that's often a difficult task, one that must impose its own great strains at times, so let's not hide it behind the pretence that they only direct the ceremony. That's someone else's job. Maybe it shouldn't be, and that's a thought worth pursuing in itself.

funeral home: how can a funeral - a ceremony or ritual - have a home? It is a unique, transient event. Occasionally it happens at the undertaker's premises, but not that frequently, I'd guess. Calling an undertaker's premises a funeral home gives it a phoney domesticity. Though it does sit neatly along from "old folks' home.."

celebrant: that's what I am, and I hate the term. We're saddled with it. Celebrating a life may or may not happen at a funeral, but a lot of other things need to happen as well. In any case, "celebrating a life" is in danger of turning into a prefabricated phrase used without thought. Perhaps it even contains a hidden encouragement not to get too upset - we're not here to weep, we're here to celebrate. But in fact, we're there for you to do whatever you need to do: flood the place with your tears, or dance a merry jig.

chapel of rest: As Molesworth used to say, "Wel I arsk you." Chapel implies a Christian context in a multi- and no-faith nation, and as for "rest"...I guess it's a back-formation from "rest in peace," but people's bodies rest in peace in their graves, not in a room at the undertaker's premises, the purpose of which is to provide a space where relatives and friends can come and say, or continue to say, goodbye to someone's body, to help them make a huge adjustment. It's a hopelessly inhibiting phrase. The goodbyes may be noisily grief-stricken or made in a brief and resentful silence, who knows? Rest doesn't come in to it.

"a few moments for your quiet reflections...": in very many funeral ceremonies. I wonder how it is really used by those present, particularly if a CD track is being played, which is very often a song. How can I look back over what someone's life means to me with Frank Sinatra singing "My Way, " a song my dead friend might have loved but one that I despise? Might it be better simply to invite people to sit and listen to the words of the song, or to the music, if it really means that much? Or sit in silence? Or...what? I suspect most people sit there feeling a bit aimless, possibly self-conscious too, their sadness deepens, they know the tough bit is coming next... please tell me I"m wrong about this.

the funeral industry: Well, quite. If you use that term, you are a part of the problem, not the solution, as we used to say way back. An effective funeral is unique, local to many or most of the bereaved people attending it, possibly a sacred rite concerning supernatural matters or possibly a secular ceremony intensely personal to those present. How can we bear to refer to it as an industrial process or product?

There's a lot of terms which I might think can be seen as unhelpfully euphemistic, but when I'm visiting a family I will do all I can to pick up the signals, and follow their lead. I've had people tell me directly to refer to "his death - he has died, not passed away." I doubt these people were suffering any less than those who are careful to say "he passed away..." And using a term like "passed away" may be transitional for them as they work through their grief.

The above terms are not like that. They distance, they hide, they create a specialised jargon that adds - or tries to add - status and dignity whether or not anyone has earned those things. We don't need to shock or distress people by being too blunt, or going into too much detail, but we should try to think and speak clearly about what we do when someone dies.

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