Metaphor and Euphemisms for Death

At a talk at The School of Life last week, someone drew a blank strip of paper from the globe, which entitles them to either 1) read a random passage from that day’s newspaper and I have to spot at least one metaphor within 30 seconds or 2) name any theme and I have to think of a relevant aphorism on the spot. If I fail in either of these tasks, that person gets a free copy of my book. In this particular case, the audience member did both. When she read from the Evening Standard, it took about 5 seconds to spot the first metaphor: ‘opaque’ in reference to a situation whose outcome was unclear. When she came up with ‘death’ as her theme, though, I had a brain freeze and couldn’t think of a single aphorism on that subject. (‘Brain freeze,’ by the way, a phrase I picked up from my kids, is a kenning.)

Of course, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of aphorisms about death. So it irked me to no end that I couldn’t think of one. About 15 minutes later, after having conceded defeat and moved on, the old chestnut

There are only two things certain in life: death and taxes

popped into my head. But it was too late: I had already given this person a book. The next morning I awoke with the perfect aphorism for death in my head, Malcolm de Chazal’s

Death is the bowel movement of the soul evacuating the body by intense pressure on the spiritual anus.

The incident reminded me of the role metaphor plays in disguising or sidestepping issues we’d rather not talk about, death being a prime example. Just think of all the euphemisms—gentle metaphorical circumlocutions—we have for death: passed on, passed away, no longer with us, gone, etc… Many of the euphemisms for death are funny, too, like ‘pushing up daisies.’ I remember a joke my Dad used to tell when I was a kid every time we drove by a cemetery: “You know, Jim, people are just dying to get in there.” I thought of it many many years later as I rode into the cemetery to bury him. Black humor suits a funeral as much as black suits.

Which makes Paul Hensby’s list of euphemisms for death worth a quick perusal. Hensby is proprietor of My Last Song, named “the best funeral website in the world” by the Your Funeral Guy website, and lists several dozen mortuary metaphors, including

Bit the big one

Fallen off the perch

Bought the farm

Gone West

Given up the ghost

Popped his/her clogs

and my personal favorite

Assumed room temperature (popular among mortuary technicians)