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Preparing for Death in American Culture

Updated on November 19, 2019
Death is Coming by Leandro Bordoni
Death is Coming by Leandro Bordoni | Source

Death Unseen

Death is all around us, but for the average person it remains unseen. The dead no longer lie peacefully on their beds; they are immediately covered and whisked off to the mortuary where their body will be made to look as peaceful and life-like as possible (Kübler-Ross, 1986). Even those approaching death in hospitals and nursing homes are often relocated to "critically ill" areas, much like a medical "death row." By the age of eighteen, a majority of Americans have seen thousands of deaths portrayed on television, yet we still do not like to think about death (Aiken, 2001).

Americans do not like to discuss death, and when we do, it is usually in hushed tones. We have even developed numerous non-threatening phrases and euphemisms to describe death (see table below for examples).

Common Euphemisms for Death

passed on
made the change
kicked the bucket
on the other side
gone to Heaven
God took him/her
Gone home
Asleep in Christ
breathed their last
with the angels
with the fishes
bought the farm
left us
went to his/her eternal reward
feeling no pain
lost the race
met his/her Maker
His/her time was up
got wasted
cashed in
checked out
crossed over Jordan
eternal rest
laid to rest
lost it
pushing up daisies
was done in
called home
translated into glory
was a goner
returned to dust
came to an end
withered away
bit the dust
in the arms of the Father
gave it up
a long sleep
gave up the ghost
left this world
out of his/her misery
rubbed out
it was curtains
on the Heavenly shores
ended it all
angels carried him/her away

(Spelder & Strickland, 1983, in Kramer, 1988, p. 14)

The medical field uses the very clinical abbreviation "RHC," which stands for "respiration has ceased." We do not like to say the words "S/he died." Death is all around us and eventually happens to everyone, yet we still fear death and do not like to discuss it. Overcoming this fear of dying will enable us to better prepare to face death.

Fear of Death

Why does our society fear death? Dr. Kübler-Ross believes the reason we are uncomfortable with death is that we are unfamiliar with it. When people die in the hospital, death is viewed as a failure of medicine to fix the problem. We fear death because it is "a dreaded stranger" (Kübler-Ross, 1986, p. 6). The fear of death varies according to age; it is high among young adults, peaks among middle-aged adults, and is at its lowest in older adults. In middle age, the fear of death has been connected to the midlife crisis and is influenced by self-awareness of declining health and unattained goals.

Another contributing factor is parental death, which removes a symbolic buffer between the individual and death (Gesser G., Wong P. T. P., & Reker G. T., 1987,1988, in Aiken, 2001). The examples above demonstrate that our society wants to deny death.

Elias (1985) believes that our fear of death stems from our inability to confront our own impending death. The topic of death or exposure to the dying makes us feel insecure because we are reminded of our own death. Because of this fear, it is easy for us emotionally and physically to cut ourselves off from the dying (in Mellor & Shilling, 1993). Unfortunately, it is in the dying process when we most need human contact and social support.

I Don't Fear Death - a poem by Sandra Beasley

Discussing Death

It is common not to think about death until it forces itself upon us, but there is good reason to think about death before that time. First, if we ever hope to lessen our fear of death and dying we need to be able to talk about it. Second, if we want to provide our friends and family with needed support during their time of death we need to better understand death and feel more comfortable discussing it. Third, there are a variety of legal matters that should be taken care of before one is incapacitated and this means discussing the death and dying process.


How do we learn to discuss death? I believe it begins with learning to discuss life. American society has become so busy trying to "keep up with the Joneses" that we can easily forget why we are working so hard and frantic. The Germans have a saying translated, "the last shirt has no pocket." If we stop for a moment and realize that we cannot take any of our material belongings with us when we die (something we know but like to forget), then we may begin to think about the true meaning of our lives, and in turn, learn to face death.

Carey suggests that applying religious beliefs to one's life early on may provide hope and comfort in the time of death. He also suggests developing loving family relationships, which will be of great support when faced with death (Carey, 1974, in Kübler-Ross, 1986). Many organizations, including churches, offer training sessions about the importance and procedure of making estate wills, living wills, power of attorney documents, life insurance, etc. These documents need to be made before an individual's incapacitation.

Although the subject may be unpleasant, most would probably agree that not having one's final wishes legally in place would be much worse. It is important for people to be educated about what legally happens when such documents do not exist. Such opportunities inevitably create an opportunity to discuss death and dying, often in a friendly environment with trained professionals.

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America has faced death in a very public way through the tragedy of September 11, with the loss of life in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the various mass shootings that have occurred. Tragedy often pulls communities together and creates a support system that allows discussion about the situation. Such events remind us that death can come unexpectedly at any time. May we see death not as an end, but a new beginning. By learning to discuss death and dying, we can overcome our fears and be better prepared to face our own death.


Aiken, L. R. (2001). Dying, Death, and Bereavement (4th ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Kramer, K. (1988). The Sacred Art of Dying: How World Religions Understand Death. New York: Paulist Press.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1986). Death: The Final Stage of Growth. New York: Touchstone.

Mellor, P. and Shilling, C. (1993). "Modernity, Self-Identity and the Sequestration of Death." Sociology, 27 (3), 411+.

© 2015 Rosa Malaga


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