Euphemisms of death

Former president Ronald Reagan died yesterday after a long bout with Alzheimers.

Reagan reshaped the political landscape of the US. People will disagree as to whether they think that was a good thing or a bad thing. But for better or for worse, Reagan's presidency changed the course of both Republican and Democratic politics.

Reagan taking oath of office
Reagan taking oath of office (Photo: Washington Post)
Reagan leaving Oval Office for the last time
Reagan leaving the Oval Office for the last time (Photo: Washington Post)

For the past twenty-four hours we have been treated to (subjected to?) almost non-stop commentary and remembrances about Reagan the man, Reagan the president, and Reagan the husband of Nancy. Despite everything we remember, we are being told that he was unbelievably intelligent, intellectually engaged, a voracious reader, a man of ideas. Amazingly, no one has yet claimed he walked on water. It is all clearly excessive.

But this isn't about all that.

I have been struck by the complete conformity to the same euphemism for what will transpire over the next few days: "Reagan will lie in repose...." In repose at his library, in repose at the capitol. Next they'll be telling us he's in repose in the "shining city on the hill."

Get a grip, people, the man's not resting — he's dead!

Then there is the extraordinary attention being paid to the minutia of schlepping the body about the country. All the networks showed the hearse backing into the Bel Air estate of the Reagans. They showed the hearse leaving the estate. They showed the hearse driving down the center of streets cleared of traffic, en route to the mortuary. They showed the hearse first backing into the mortuary and then re-emerging to make a U-turn then drive in front-end first. And, we've now been given a minute-by-minute itinerary of where the body will "lie in repose" between now and when it is finally buried.

Americans do death in their own peculiar way. We have developed a unique vocabulary to avoid saying that someone died. Last Superbowl weekend (I've been saving this one!), I happened to read the obituary page in the San Jose Mercury News. Under the heading "Local Notices" — brief factual announcements limited to one short paragraph — all of the fourteen people identified "died." But under the larger heading "Funeral Announcements" — where the names were printed in much larger, bold-faced type, often accompanied by pictures — only six of the people "died." Of the others, six "entered into rest," five "passed away," three were simply "at rest" as of a certain date, one "gracefully and peacefully passed" (Go? Collect $200?), and two found themselves utterly verb-less in print (for example: "In San Jose, California, January 29, 2004....").

We put ourselves through horrendous rituals, like open-casket wakes, at which people file by and say things like, "Oh, doesn't she look wonderful, so life-like" when any damned fool can see she looks dead. We spend outrageous sums of money on caskets and casket liners in which to hermetically seal the corpse. We wait until the person is dead to say good things about them. It's the American way of death.

I have been reminded this weekend of one Reagan quote that I think bears repeating:

Whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will report that I appealed to your best hopes not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts, and may all of you as Americans never forget your heroic origins, never fail to seek divine guidance, and never, never lose your natural, god-given optimism.
— Final speech to a Republican convention

It's too bad the same can't be said of our current president.

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