English Language Blog

Talking About Death in English Posted by on Mar 11, 2021 in Culture, English Language, English Vocabulary

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay, CCO

People don’t want to talk about death. It’s a difficult thing to discuss, but there are times when we must. It’s especially hard for those who find themselves in a conversation that is not in their native language. No one wants to say the wrong thing in even the simplest situation. There is nothing simple about the subject of death and dying. Non-native speakers of English in the US will almost certainly have to talk about it with a native speaker at some time. Let’s look at English vocabulary about death and dying.

This is not a blog about the causes of death. Words like cancer, heart attack, and stroke are easy enough to understand but, in a conversation, not very important. It is not polite to ask a friend or family member how someone died. You might ask, “Was it sudden?” or, “Had this person been ill?” These questions show concern without a need for too much information.

Friends and family members of someone who has died may be referred to as:

  • Bereaved
  • Loved Ones
  • Survivors

As I said, it is such a difficult subject that we often avoid using the words death or dead.

There are many synonyms and phrases used in English to mean death. These include:

  • Deceased
  • Passed away
  • Passed on
  • Left us
  • Expired
  • Moved on
  • Eternal rest or Eternal sleep

In the US, we honor the dead with funerals or services. Some vocabulary you might need to know:

  • Burial – the act of burying the deceased in a cemetery
  • Calling hours – a specific time for friends and family to pay their respects to the immediate family of the deceased
  • Casket – a rectangular wooden box designed to hold the body for a funeral or cremation
  • Cemetery – the place where a body is buried
  • Coffin – similar to a casket, but tapered at the head and foot and wide at the shoulder area
  • Cremation – burning the body to ashes
  • Crematorium – a place specifically in business to cremate a body
  • Death Certificate – the official document declaring that someone has died
  • Embalm – to prepare a body for burial to prevent rapid decay, often for the purpose of displaying the body before burial
  • Eulogy – an oration, or speech, delivered at a funeral remembering the life of the person who has died
  • Final Resting Place – a synonym for a cemetery or, sometimes, the place where ashes are scattered following a cremation
  • Funeral home – the location of a funeral, and where a body is prepared for burial or cremation
  • Hearse – a vehicle that will transport the casket or coffin to the burial site
  • Interment – the act or ceremony of burying a body or placing it inside a tomb
  • Mausoleum – a large, free-standing building housing more than one tomb
  • Mortician – the person responsible for preparing the body for embalming, burial, entombing, or cremation – often called an undertaker
  • Obituary – written notice of the death of someone, usually including names of family and loved ones left behind and a brief biography
  • Pallbearers – people charged with the responsibility of carrying the coffin or casket to the final burial location
  • Services – the gathering of friends and family to commemorate the life and death of the deceased, often including a eulogy and religious readings and songs
  • Tomb – a large vault, enclosed and often underground, to house the body of the deceased
  • Urn – an ornamental vessel that holds the ashes of someone who has been cremated
  • Wake – similar to services, but more informal and usually more secular and typically held the day before a funeral

Phrases you might say to someone who is dealing with death:

  • I am sorry for your loss
  • Please accept my sincerest condolences
  • You have my deepest sympathy
  • I share in your sorrow

Be polite, be respectful. Because we often don’t know what to say under these circumstances, remember that it is sometimes best to say as little as possible.

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About the Author: Gary Locke

Gary is a semi-professional hyphenate.