Minding our language — Why we don’t use euphemisms to talk about death

A group of people talking around a table at Poppy's funerals Tooting HQ

Three minute read

Passed away. Gone to sleep. Set out on their final journey. Stepped into another room. There are so many different phrases to choose from to describe death and dying. But at Poppy’s, we don’t use any of them. Why not?

We live in a culture where talking about death and dying can be difficult, so people often use language to soften, hide or avoid facing up to someone's death.

However, we find that using clear and direct language — instead of metaphors or euphemisms — helps make sure that everyone understands exactly what’s going on.

If you are feeling tired or overwhelmed, or are unfamiliar with how to plan a funeral, having something explained gently, but clearly, makes it easier to make informed decisions that are right for you.

For example, we always talk about ‘embalming’, rather than using the euphemism ‘hygienic treatment’. We ensure that clients know that in the vast majority of cases, this is not a necessary process.

Who benefits from using clear language?

Using clear language is especially important for people with dementia, people with learning disabilities or speakers of English as a second language. Using clear, simple language increases their awareness of what’s going on. It helps meaningfully include them in planning or attending a funeral.

The same is true for children, even when this feels uncomfortable. Daniela Iacovella from the charity Child Bereavement UK explains, “We often hear that families don’t want to use words like ‘dead’, ‘died’, and ‘dying’, because they don’t want to scare young people. But euphemisms like ‘passed away’ or ‘gone to heaven’ can be confusing — for young children, especially. Try to be clear and honest and allow space for questions. Keep in mind that what children imagine can be worse than the truth.”

Read Daniela’s full blog about how to talk to children about death and dying.

Speaking clearly — but with care and compassion — when planning a funeral, is perhaps one of the kindest things we can do.

Why we always use people’s names

We always call the people that we care for by their names, rather than referring to them as ‘the deceased’. They had a name in life which we’ll use after death. They are still a person, deserving respect, not an object or a thing.

That’s why we choose to say that we ‘collect a person’ rather than ‘remove a body’. And it’s why we invite you to ‘visit your person’ instead of to ‘view their body’.

We know this makes a difference, because you tell us that it does. “The simple act of referring to our dear departed by his name meant everything,” reads a recent google review from one of our clients. It’s a comment we hear over and over again.

And that’s another thing… the language we use to refer to you. We try not to make assumptions about who is organising the funeral and their relationship to the person who has died. Not all funerals are organised by family members, so we talk about ‘client meetings’ and have a ‘Friends and Family room’.

Turning words into action

These may seem like small things, but language makes a real difference. The words we use affect the way we think and behave.

In our daily work, imagining someone’s family or friends in the room with us is helpful as we prepare someone for their funeral.

We should never say or do anything that we wouldn’t be comfortable, or even proud, to share with or explain to a friend or family member of the person we are caring for.

Showing respect in words and actions is fundamental. It shouldn’t need commenting on. Yet it does, because it is a conscious choice. Of course, we hope that all funeral directors treat the people in their care with respect — but, sadly, we know this is not always the case.

Using someone’s name is respectful and it’s a constant reminder of that person’s humanity and individuality in life and in death. That is something that we, as funeral directors, must never forget.

Read more opinion pieces — Why funerals should be accessible to all and Why funeral directors should be upfront about costs.

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