According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word “taboo” comes from the late 18th century Tongan word tabu meaning “set apart, forbidden” and was introduced into the English language by the explorer Captain Cook. It is defined as “a social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing”.
Death has long been a taboo subject in England, reaching the point where people will not use the word. When I wrote to the Office of Veterans Affairs following the death of my father, I received a response saying, “please accept out condolences in regards to the passing of you farther”. More annoying than “your father” being misspelt, as “you farther,” was the use of the word “passing.” Passing what?
There was a temptation to write back and ask the writer to define what he meant. Passing is what you do when going by something or someone when on a journey; or when you gain the necessary marks taking an exam or test; or foregoing an opportunity to do something. Dad didn’t pass, he died.
Our forebears did not have such a problem. Until the late Twentieth Century, when the Church of England introduced its contemporary language liturgies, there was no such thing as a “funeral” service in the Book of Common Prayer, instead the language was blunt and uncompromising, there was an order for “The Burial of the Dead.” There was felt to be no need to spare people from the truth of what death meant, word such as “though after my skin worms destroy this body” made clear the fate that awaited.
Perhaps the disappearance of Christianity from the English consciousness has contributed to the reluctance to discuss death: belief in the hereafter did help people cope with the pain of leaving here.
The decline of traditional religion has made way for the emergence of an extraordinary plethora of beliefs about death. Some, like the sort of comment that “there is another star in the sky” are childish pieces of whimsy, others, like the poem that includes a line which says, “I was not there, I did not die,” are plain denials of the truth.
An inability to cope with death shapes responses to the Covid-19 crisis. The Office of National Statistics states that:
Up to 8 May 2020, there were 37,375 deaths registered in England and Wales involving the coronavirus (COVID-19) (21,145 men and 16,230 women). The majority of deaths involving COVID-19 have been among people aged 65 years and over (33,098 out of 37,375), with 46% (15,079) of these occurring in the over-85 age group.
In plain terms, 88% of the total deaths have been among those aged over 65, and 40% of total deaths have been people aged over 85. Were people better able to cope with death, there would be a more ready acknowledgement that these are ages at which people die, regardless of viruses.