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Speaking Ill of the Dead: Obituary Euphemisms

bolton-abbey-89222_1280People often say, “You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.” It’s seen as disrespectful to say anything bad about someone who can no longer defend themselves, or perhaps about someone for whom death is enough of a punishment for how they lived their life.

On the other hand, if someone was an awful person when they’re alive, being dead won’t change that. In fact, having lost the chance to redeem themselves, they’re likely to be forever remembered as having been not a very nice person. If, for example, we weren’t allowed to speak ill of dead politicians, we would have to erase half of history. So if Great Aunt Mabel dying doesn’t mean we should all start pretending she was a lovely person, how soon is it acceptable to tell people what she was really like? As soon as she’s cold? At the funeral? How about in her obituary?

There is a way to appear to have a respectable air of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” without limiting an obituary to “Mabel was born. She lived her life. Then she died.” Newspaper obituaries – that is the blurb announcing a person’s death and summarising their life – have a tradition of using euphemisms in order to give the impression of a colourful and much-loved character, while revealing what everyone really thought of them. This isn’t as common now as it might have been a century ago, but there are many well recognised phrases. Even death itself is often referred to euphemistically; we all know that the obituaries are listing deaths, yet everyone mentioned has “passed”, is “resting”, or is “lost”.

Didn’t suffer fools gladly

This phrase indicates that the person it applies to didn’t have much patience for those they thought stupid. In an obituary it could mean just that, but it might also be an implication that the person described actually didn’t suffer anyone gladly and that were an unpleasant character who didn’t warm to others.

He never married/he was a bachelor

These euphemisms might seem rather old-fashioned to most people nowadays, except perhaps in certain social circles or in older generations. They hint at the person being gay.

A tireless raconteur

Meaning ostensibly that the person described likes to tell stories, qualifying “raconteur” with “tireless” should bring to mind someone who never stops talking. This person was utterly boring, full of droning anecdotes and never knew when to shut up.

A colorful character

A person who could be described using many more “colorful” words, if only they wouldn’t be censored with asterisks and still be entirely inappropriate for an obituary.

Vivacious; a character; fun loving

Several ways to say that someone was a drunkard, that they liked a tipple more than every now and then, that they were rarely sober.

Finally, some people don’t bother treading carefully in obituaries at all, even with family members. In September this year, the children of a woman from Reno, Nevada published a scathing obituary in their local newspaper. The text condemned their mother for the abuse they suffered as children and bluntly stated that they “celebrate her passing from this earth”. Which goes to show that if you’re nasty enough, not even euphemisms can save you.

Are euphemisms in obituaries inappropriate? Should they only say something nice or say nothing at all? If the language of life (and death) interests you, consider taking a course with Listen & Learn! We offer group and one-on-one sessions, to provide you with the vocabulary for any occasion.