On the language of death

The obituaries we publish intrigue me. I mean the obituaries that funeral homes or families write. Where we journalists would plainly write that someone “died,” these obituary writers sometimes write that the person “went to his heavenly reward,” “transitioned into the heavenly host” or “passed away peacefully.” I think those rather euphemistic phrases are fine and probably accurately describe how the families see the death of their loved ones. (“Loved one” is a euphemism, too, but I like its all-purpose nature.) Besides, those obituaries are paid notices, and the families can write what they want within the bounds of decency.

A reader asked me recently about the word funeralize. He wondered if it was a “real” word. I thought it was funeral industry jargon; my reader thought it was dialect. Indeed, dictionaries I consulted list funeralize and define it as “to hold or attend a funeral.” The word has been in the language since the 17th century. At least a couple of Internet sources attribute the word to African-American dialect, and one cited Zora Neale Hurston. A Internet version of H.L. Mencken’s “The American Language” credits “the backwoods pulpit” with the word. Another Internet source cited Edwin Newman. The journalist sharply criticized funeralize as a non-word.

I won’t use funeralize, but others will. We journalists will stick to the plain “hold a funeral.”

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.