Words Matter – Poppy’s ask, is it time to rethink the language we use around death and dying?

Poppy’s, a London-based funeral directors, launched 'Dead Good Words' campaign

The ‘Dead Good Words’ campaign launched this summer by funeral directors Poppy’s prompts a much-needed debate around the words we use when talking about death and dying.

Words really do matter. The words we use, both as individuals and as a society, reflect values and attitudes, and also carry consequences for how we interact with and behave towards others.

This summer London-based funeral directors Poppy’s launched a new campaign to challenge what they feel is outdated Victorian language around death and dying.

What Poppy’s Say About Their Campaign

The ‘Dead Good Words’ campaign highlights how dehumanising and euphemistic language, such as ‘disposal’, ‘removal’ and ‘deceased’, can lead to poor care for the dead and for grieving relatives and friends.

Founder Poppy Mardall says “Words have power. Language sets expectations and shapes attitudes. It can and should evolve. Language around disability, race, gender, and sexuality has changed dramatically in the last fifty years, so why shouldn’t it change when we talk about people who have died?”

At the heart of the campaign is Poppy’s Dead Good Words manifesto – a simple guide explaining the problems with the language we currently use around death and dying and offering better options. The guide asks people on social media to nominate words or phrases that they think need updating using #DeadGoodWords.

This campaign is inspired by a Law Commission project, which kicked off at the end of 2022, to investigate outdated laws around “the disposal of the deceased to be reviewed including burials, cremation and other methods”.

As Poppy’s campaign highlights, ‘disposal’ remains the legal and technical term used to describe what happens to our bodies after we die. Like most of the language we use today around death and funerals, it stems from the Victorian era. Phrases like ‘committed suicide’ or ‘the deceased’ rather than using someone’s actual name, are unhelpful throwbacks to times long gone. Like many aspects of the funeral sector, this kind of language is no longer fit for purpose.

Poppy’s believes that dehumanising language facilitates the kind of poor care highlighted in a Dispatches expose in 2012 and a Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) report in 2020; where the dead are treated like waste or as objects rather than people with their own identity. Poor care can traumatise families, friends, and communities at a moment of great vulnerability in their lives, when they most need help, support and healing.

Gillian Best, a former client of Poppy’s, is a supporter of this campaign. “One of the things I loved about Poppy’s was the way they constantly referred to my husband Kevin by his name, not ‘the deceased’ or ‘loved one’. I worked at a hospice for many years and saw first-hand how important it was for families to know their husband or mother was being treated as a person rather than ‘a body’, and that thoughtful approach always starts with the words you use.”

As Mardall said when they launched the campaign, “We fully support the Law Commission review. We hope that one, perhaps unintended, outcome of this process is that it acts as a prompt for all those who care for the dead, and for their families and friends, to re-consider the language we use on a day-to-day basis.

“I have spent the past 11 years supporting grieving people. Every day I speak to people who work in this area and it feels like there is real appetite for change. We cannot offer people a funeral experience that fulfils modern expectations of outstanding care and respect for the individual if we don’t start with the language we use.”

whiteballoon welcomes this campaign

At whiteballoon, we are very much aware of the need to use language considerately and carefully when talking about such a sensitive and emotional subject. Everyone will have a different view about which words feel right for them, so there is unlikely to be a consensus of opinion, but a healthy debate and discussion highlighting the need to review and revise both formal and informal language around death and dying is a really positive thing.

What Poppy’s Have Learnt So Far

Poppy’s have recently shared five key things that they have found so far:

  • Many other people feel that it is time for change too.
  • There is more of a consensus around the use of some words than others.
  • The importance of clear and compassionate language to promote understanding.
  • There are lots of positive experiences out there, where the right language really has helped.
  • Whilst we may not all agree on the right words, we can work together towards positive change.

Read the full update on the ‘Dead Good Words’ campaign here.

This campaign will continue to run, so do get involved. The more feedback Poppy’s receives, the more likely we all are to understand which words resonate most, and what type of language and behaviour has a positive, rather than a negative, impact on the bereaved.

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