Speaking of Dying

Do public rituals of grief ever help us mourn?

Julia Cooper takes on the eulogy in literature, popular culture and social media in The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy and, not surprisingly, finds it wanting as an outlet to assuage grief. She argues that “in a culture that sees death every day and yet hides the traces of grief that follow, there aren’t enough words for loss.” I don’t know if more words would help, but I do agree that ours is a death-denying culture. As an obituary writer, I am an avid reader of death announcements on social media and in traditional newspapers, but I am frequently appalled by the euphemisms mourners use in writing or speaking about the deceased. Some examples are “in a better place,” a “new star in the firmament,” “smiling down on us” (and its variants) and the ubiquitous “passed” to soften the reality that somebody has, in fact, died. As for condolences, I cringe whenever I hear a stranger tritely offer sympathy...