An ex work colleague got in touch last year to say that her Mother had died, and would I be available to conduct the ceremony? How fabulous I thought! And it was a joy from start to end; most people think I’m a little odd by saying that but this good lady had embraced life to the full and her family wanted to her to have a full celebration of this incredible life she had lived.
Part of the ceremony was to include a relative reading a poem that I hadn’t come across before, “Dead is Dead” by Alan Balter (1). The family were keen that the ceremony should reflect the lady in all aspects, including her wonderful sense of humour and this poem certainly did that. It’s all about the different words and expressions we use instead of the actual word dead.
The above pink skull was made by the lady who died whose ceremony I conducted.
The poem came about when Alan's father died; his brother called him and instead of saying that his Dad had died, he told him that he had “expired” making Alan wonder why he used such a term. Since then, Alan put together a list of euphemisms “to help those who find it difficult to inform someone of a close relative's death by telling how it is.”
Why is it we avoid the words dead or death? From a personal point of view, as a retired Nurse, I have looked on in horror over the years at some of the conversations between a hapless Doctor and distraught family members as a well-intentioned expression or euphemism for death had been completely misinterpreted or misunderstood. “He’s gone” was a common one. Gone where? Off the ward? I didn’t think he could walk. Another is “he’s passed”. Passed what? An examination of some sort? Passed a kidney stone? Passed wind?
Some may feel that the word dead is too strong to be used when breaking bad news and that people need the fact broken to them gently. Having seen people even more distraught when they realise, after a garbled conversation, what the Doctor was actually trying to say, I am a firm believer of using the word dead. It clearly denotes what has happened and there is no ambiguity. It is actually kinder in the long run.
I also hadn’t realised, until I went looking, quite how many words and expressions there are to say that someone has died (2). Alan managed to capture probably the most common used in the USA but there is a whole other world of expressions that are used in the UK! These include “popped his clogs”, “kick the bucket” and “push up the daisies”! Looking at the history behind some of these expressions is less than pleasant it has to be said though.
Marie Curie (3) had a wonderful idea last year when they produced a booklet and a pack of playing cards, asking us to “play cards and spark a meaningful conversation” saying that “we still have control over our choice to talk things through”.
Dr Kathryn Mannix summed it succinctly. “Talking about death won’t make it happen. But not talking about it robs us of choices and moments that will not come again”.
So, who’s for a game of cards before we peg it?