"If you are walking in Charleston, you are walking on someone's grave."--Sue Bennett, Charleston tour guide

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Euphemistically Speaking: The American Way of "Kicking the Bucket"

We may laugh, giggle or cringe when hearing that someone "kicked the bucket," "is pushing up daisies," "bit the dust," or "gave up the ghost."
Dr. Dickinson has taught courses on death and dying since 1975

Each is a way to say someone died; each is a euphemism. Euphemisms, in simpler language, are ways to soften, to avoid harsher wording. There can even be humorous ways to refer to the finality of death and funerals. This site lists dozens of dozens of death-related euphemisms, including my personal favorites: "buy a pine condo,""go to a necktie party," and "he's past his sell-by date."

College of Charleston sociology professor Dr. George Dickinson, an internationally recognized expert in the studies of death, dying and bereavement, includes euphemisms in his presentation, "The American Way of Death."

"We joke about sex, we joke about death," Dickinson told my "Beyond the Grave" students on April 2. He says when it's someone we know and love it can be hard to say the "d" word: death. "We use softer words," he said. "We'll say someone 'passed away' or 'passed.'"

Comparing Americans to the people we are closest to culturally, the British, Dickinson, who has lived and studied in England, says the Brits tend to be more direct and to the point about death, perhaps due, in part, to their World War II experience with German bombings of English cities that killed thousands of civilians.

Dr. Dickinson speaks to my "Beyond the Grave" FYE students
Dickinson offered a historical overview of death and bereavement in the U.S. His three timelines:

  • 1600-1830: Living with Death- In early America with its high mortality rate, Dickinson says people were "surrounded by death, they accepted it, it was God's will." Urban residents were constantly reminded of death by the many church graveyards and city cemeteries they may pass every day. Hearing church bells often indicated another funeral had taken place.
  • 1830-1945: Dying of Death- Or, as Dickinson calls this period, "out of sight, out of mind. In the 1830s, "rural cemeteries" were created in areas outside city population centers. In the 1890s, funeral homes began to emerge. "The purpose became to beautify the body," he said. Embalming would help with that preservation. "The body would be dressed up to make the person look alive."
  • 1945-Present: Resurrection of Death- In 1945, when America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to compel surrender, this new period began. The suddenness of mass death realized throughout World War II returned death to the forefront in ways, he said. This continues to today with mass shootings at U.S. schools, malls and other places, and terror attacks around the world. 
Dickinson studied pre-med and sociology at Baylor University, where he went on to earn a master's degree in sociology. At LSU, he received his doctorate in sociology with a minor in anthropology. 

His ongoing research includes monitoring courses offered in death and dying at America's 135 medical schools. He says his interest in the field began decades ago when he asked a medical student "How's your death and dying course?" and was surprised when he responded, "We don't have anything like that." 

He has taught this unique topic at MUSC in Charleston and at CofC his courses include "Death and Dying" (Sociology 336.) 

Dickinson also commented to my class about how in the United States the cremation rate now for the first time exceeds the percentage of in-ground burials. For more on that, see my previous blog post. 

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