Patrick McNally

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.


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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)

This article was originally posted on my blog,
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