Euphemisms 1: Officials and officiousness

Charles 1 Comment


Posted by Vale


Euphemisms are all about not facing up to reality. We like to think we use them for good reasons, but they have a darker side too. This poem, written by Harold Pinter in 1997, uses one of the words we often shy from, yet it too is a euphemism. It was written in the year that his own father died and I think that, writing about death in this way, he was describing something of his own experience of the way that deaths are managed and, in the midst of the form filling, the way that language can help us hide from what has happened and what we have both done and not done.

Because it is Pinter, of course, I think he was also making a point about the way that being ’official’, can lead to the denial of both feelings and humanity at many different levels. Of course the poem is an extreme version of unfeeling officiousness but does it remind you at all of the way that some funeral businesses handle their first contact with families?

Death (Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953)

Where was the dead body found? Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Was the body dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?

Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey?

What made you declare the dead body dead? Did you declare the dead body dead?
How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the dead body was dead?

Did you wash the dead body Did you close both its eyes Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned
Did you kiss the dead body

The photograph at the head of the post was taken  by Bob Van Zahn of an installation by the artist George M Tokaya. The poem was silkscreen printed on 7 hospital bedsheets and 7 forensic dissection tables surrounded by the smell of lysol.

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Dead Body
Dead Body
12 years ago

Must you talk about me like that?