Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Cremains of the Day: A look at words in funeral service

Euphemisms abound in funeral service. As Hugh Rawson explains in one of my most favorite books, Euphemisms & Other Double Talk (Crown Publishers NY, 1981), words that are used to describe unpleasant things begin to take on an unpleasant connotation themselves. Before long, the word itself seems to be the bad thing. This is the case with many of the four letter words we try not to utter, innocent words of great age and provenance that honestly describe their subject are eventually considered derogatory, and are then replaced with obscure quasi-latin and semi-medical terms or with flowery hints at the real subject.
An example of the flowery would be 'passed away'. This term is used when what is really meant is 'died'. By not actually saying 'died', but meaning it, we think we are being gentle. What we're also doing, however, is adding to the unhealthy denial of death that our society suffers from (and by we, I certainly include myself - most obituaries I draft contain that euphemism). A quasi-latin example of a euphemism is 'deceased'. Clearly we mean 'dead' or 'the dead'. If we all know what we're talking about, why must we substitute a vague obscurity instead of plain language? Well, we think we're being polite, and perhaps no profession is more concerned with the niceties of language and avoiding offense than the 'death care industry'.
The simple fact is that feelings are effected and affected by one's choice of words, especially in mourning. Funeral Directors are correct in using the most polite and least offensive words to describe an often delicate situation. What matters emotionally is not where the word came from etymologically, but how it feels to the person hearing it. I might feel that a certain four letter word has unfairly been painted as a derogatory term because it describes something that our culture is uncomfortable with, but I don't use that term when it will hurt the feelings and sensibilities of others.
A funeral director is similarly bound by consideration to avoid words that will injure or upset, but what should not be lost in all of this, is that at some point we need to use the words that force us to confront the unpleasant reality. At some point the grieving need to say 'died' 'death' 'dead' and leave the flowery and the obscure behind.

Speaking of funeral directors, the names of some professions take on a negative or derogatory connotation because of society's squeamishness about the work they do. Examples of this are sanitary engineer (garbage man), janitor (cleaning woman or man), and mortician. These terms can change pretty rapidly as the taint of the occupation seeps rapidly into it's title. Hugh Rawson gives the term 'mortician' credit for being the first to ape the glamor of 'physician'. It inspired others such as 'beautician' and 'cosmetician' which in turn dragged 'mortician' down from it's lofty heights. I'm sure you can guess which term I prefer- 'undertaker'. 'Undertaker' is an interesting title and often misunderstood. Most assume that it comes from taking the dead under (the ground). In fact, we learned at 'Mortuary' school that it originates from contractors undertaking to provide the goods and services desired for funerals. I prefer 'undertaker' because of it's history, but even more because everyone knows what you mean when you say 'undertaker' (even if they don't know the word's origins).

Calling a heart a heart, and a club a club, brings us to another type of word that abounds in funeral service- jargon. Jargon describes technical words that are generally only used and understood by those in a certain trade or profession (where you want to draw the line between trade and profession is a particularly ticklish subject in 'the dismal trade'). Jargon is used in place of plain English outside of professional circles out of laziness, and sometimes a desire to impress the common folk with 5 dollar words. Neither of these are desirable in funeral service, so we are taught to avoid terms such as 'DC' for death certificate, 'post' for postmortem examination (autopsy) and 'cremains'. The term 'cremains' is a particularly despicable combination of euphemism and jargon and means 'cremated remains'. I don't know who came up with this term- probably the same ad-man who coined 'cran-tastic', but it purports to be a gentler way to refer to cremated remains. Since it's funeral director jargon, though, many people don't even know what it means.

I was taught not to use the terms cremains (which like ain't, really is in the dictionary) or 'ashes' to describe cremated remains. 'Ashes' was to be avoided because the term might lead people to believe that the cremated remains they receive will have the consistency of ashes, and then may be shocked into legal action when they discover that, in fact, they have the consistency of dry cement. 'Ashes' are not ashes, but in fact are the skeletal remains left behind after cremation. This material is processed into a more uniform consistency that approximates dry cement. Please forgive me, Professor Malcom, but I have finally taken to using the term 'Ashes' because people are comfortable with it, and like 'undertaker' everyone knows what you mean when you say 'Ashes'.
(Euthanism is a term I have coined for polite words regarding death)


Sentiment said...

Love this post - I have only recently decided to stop fluffing up the truth after reading a fellow bloggers story on his wife’s death - The price of love

Just before christmas back he wrote something that made me aware about the use of language

I vowed from there on to be tactful but truthful of the situation, to start using the terms dead, death and dying instead of passed away and passed on! Sometimes there are moments when I feel awkward in doing so and I slip back into my old ways.. BUT I’m 80% of the way there!

Anonymous said...

The term that bugs me? "Death Care".

Cremains is another ridiculous word. Most of the families we deal with refer to the cremated remains as "ashes".

I do use "passed away" on occasion.

Charles Cowling said...

Lost is popular in the UK, as in "I've just lost my husband." No. lady, you didn't lose him: he died!

Deceased is peculiarly repellent, far too close in sound to diseased. Deceased is one of those euphemisms that whispers creepily.

On 19th century memorials in the UK you read ...fell asleep on... and you want to shout WELL WHY DIDN'T YOU WAKE HIM UP?!

Plain words are always best. Corpse is a bit stark, perhaps. I've never had anyone wince at anything else.

Undertaker is very good. Yes, we know who an undertaker is. Good for you, Patrick! No standing on inflated dignity there. Honesty is a very attractive and reassuring trait.

Patrick McNally said...

My wife was at a party and met a woman who told her she had lost her husband. "I'm so sorry" my wife said.
"Oh no," the woman said, "he's alive, I'm just not sure where he went. He's probably in the kitchen"

tindink said...

You never cease to amaze me at beautifully you write about the most delicate of subjects and how quickly your mind must work to compute what is acceptable to whoever you are talking to whether professionally or not.

I am guilty of saying that my husband 'passed away', that I 'lost him' and when I gave permission for my daughter to take his 'ashes' to Australia to scatter on the beach where we stayed when she married, I remember saying to her, as she left for her flight,'Make sure you don't lose your dad won't you?', whereupon we collapsed with the hysterics totally unbecoming to the occasion ....but we both had understood the meaning behind the words. The strangeness of the situation struck as funny but so sad at the same there were tears and laughter.

Your article brought that thought back to me suddenly and reminded me how easily one can be upset by using words that are correct but unpalatable to someone who has just been widowed because their partner died.

Two years on and I still have difficulty saying that he died.

That I allowed his remains to be scattered somewhere on the other side of the world astounded some relatives and I came in for quite a lot of criticism at the time for that. But when I think of him now, I think of him on that beach where we sat and drank red wine, (giggling like a couple of teenagers up to mischief) and as time passes I am glad that I made that decision and listened to my instinct.

I am glad that the Undertaker was professional enough to understand my wishes were important and to smooth the path by helping with formalities.
So much of the work of undertakers is taken for granted, I'll never forget the kindness and courtesy that I was treated with.


Anonymous said...

How about "funeralization?"

Anya Shortridge said...

On the term "Ashes"

Could not have explained my sentiments better! However, when using the term "Ashes" in front of some funeral directors, we invariably get the proverbial one eyebrow and "Ahem.... Cremains" and the definition of said cremains. [Ummm, We know what cremains are, thank you ;)]. With families, we use the term ashes because this is how people in general refer to them as your article stated, and 'ashes' does not carry as negative a feeling. We have also found that when Googling, it is the term 'ashes' that is used most, not 'cremains.'

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