Death – a taboo word?

Posted on April 14, 2014 by Judy | Filed under: Death, Funerals

There are countless euphemisms to acknowledge that someone has died .  Pushing up the daisies, popped his clogs, six feet under, gone to meet his maker…..Anything to avoid using the actual, factual terminology.  The famous Blue Parrot sketch in Monty Python’s Flying Circus mocked the way we skirt around talking about death.

MP Parrot

Death, Dying, Dead.    There, I’ve said it.    If I had said someone  had ‘fallen asleep’, or had ‘been taken’ (I came across both of those in newspaper columns),  it sounds like narcolepsy, or an invasion of bodysnatchers.   Using euphemisms doesn’t make death any less real or sad or painful, any more than using the words dying or death make it more real or more likely to occur.


And for children, we have to be especially careful as they see things in black and white – euphemisms may only serve to confuse and frighten.  Imagine telling a child that Granny had been ‘taken by the angels’ ?   Whatever would that conjure up?

sad child


This is what the dictionary says Death is:


/dɛθ/ Show Spelled [deth] Show IPA



the act of dying; the end of life; the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism. Compare brain death.

an instance of this: a death in the family; letters published after his death.

the state of being dead: to lie still in death.

extinction; destruction: It will mean the death of our hopes.

manner of dying: a hero’s death.
That seems clear enough.  So why do we flinch from using the terminology?  Do we find the “D” word too harsh?   I was interested enough to do a little survey of a couple of local newspapers’ obituary column announcements (The Oxford Times and The Banbury Guardian) and the findings were interesting:
Anne and Fred

 Of 127 notices in the death columns for last month:

–  63 used ‘passed away’ (with or without ‘peacefully’)
–  52 had no verb at all, but used adverbs only:  ‘suddenly’, ‘peacefully’, ‘quietly’
–  3 used the term ‘Taken’
–  9 used the verb ‘Died’.

So 93% of deaths were called something else.  (A couple actually just had the date and place.  Not a verb or adverb to be seen.   I think possibly because the column is headed ‘Deaths’, people may think using the verb is superfluous.

I do wonder why we hesitate – even flinch from using the “D” word, whether in print (such as condolence cards, with their sugar-coated words), or in speech (‘I’m sorry for your loss’/’Uncle John has passed away’ etc)..

Is it to try to comfort the bereaved, or is it because we are afraid to face the reality of our mortality?

How do you address death?  Are you a D Word User or Avoider?

As an independent funeral celebrant, I will use whatever words you feel most comfortable with, when you slip off this mortal coil….