Thursday 18 March 2010

Join The Majority

There are innumerable euphemisms for death. Some - pushing up daisies, sleeping with fishes, achieving room temperature - are comical and unused. Others are simply prissy circumlocutions: passed away, in a better place, gathered up to God, gone over etc etc.

The essential problem with any euphemism is not the verbiage or circumlocution; it's that they avoid a truth. Even assuming the existence of God and realised eschatology, how do you know that dear old Aunty Ethel is in a better place? She may be in Hell. In fact, I'm certain that she is.

The great exception to this rule is a solemn and beautiful phrase that has almost passed out of currency: Joined the majority. It came to English from the Latin of Petronius: Abiit ad plures is found in The Satyricon. Whole ages of death are contained in the phrase.

Join the majority avoids die (if that was your aim) whilst meditating on the eternal gluttony of the grave. It takes a miserable fact and clothes it in a greater and more miserable truth.

It is true. There is an utterly erroneous notion that the majority of all humans who have ever existed are alive today. In fact, about six percent are. The majority is 94%. Facts and figures can be found by following this link. The score currently stands at 6 billion living: 100 billion dead; or as Dante/Eliot said in the Inferno/Waste Land,

So many
I had not thought death had undone so many.

si lunga tratta    [so long a line]
di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto    [of people, that I'd never have believed]
che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.     [that death had undone so many]

The only euphemism for death I like (if it is a euphemism) is Shakespeare's "precious friends hid in death's dateless night". Dateless night is wonderful enough (reminds me of Catullus' nox est perpetua, una dormienda) but the enigmatic idea of their having been hidden is what makes the line. As though death were squirreling people away in the dark. Perhaps it has something to do with Cleopatra's running "into the secret house of death."

I once got a Shakespeare concordance and went through every single reference to Death. I discovered that in Shakespeare personified Death is a rotting corpse who tends to eat men and seduce women, which is a trifle freaky.

For example:

He is too good and fair for Death and me:
Whom I myself embrace, to set him free.
   - Girl in All's Well That Ends Well

O proud Death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck.
   - Chap in Hamlet

Falstaff says "swifter than he that gibbets on the brewer's bucket", which doesn't appear to have anything to do with death at all. In fact it's pretty damned obscure to modern eyes because bucket is being used with the old sense of a cross-beam. Butcher's used to tie animals by their feet to a cross-beam and then kill them. The animals would writhe and kick and that's how we get the phrase kick the bucket.

Soldiers wittering on about how when the war's over they'll go back home, buy a little plot of land and raise cattle, is the origin of bought the farm. At last he's out of all this.

Anyway, given the 100 billion to six majority talked of earlier, it's worthwhile remembering G.K. Chesterton's line "Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead." So join the unworking majority.
I have rambled too long. I was going to finish on a frightfully witty political joke, but I can't work it out. Something about a hanged parliament.

A postcard from Aunty Ethel


  1. Popped his clogs?

    (Wonderful, wonderful post, Inky - if I may call you that?)

  2. I was nothing but a crawling earth worm- look at me now, I am king.

    I have four living rooms, 20 bed rooms, two marble galleries, several wings of daintier chambers, my sleeping room, the bedroom of my viperous lover, and a beautifully appointed room for the concierge...

    While we while away here, let us put on our funerary robes, bring us perfume and a sample of that subtle liquid which will be used to marinate our bones...

  3. Moptop, you may of course call me Inky, and thank you.
    Everet, don't quote Petronius without attribution - by a eccentricity of Roman law Petronius' heirs are still able to claim royalty on all work - original language or translated. You're liable to find yourself contacted by toga-clad barratrists.

  4. Moptop told me to pop in and she was right - your posts are rather wonderful.
    I've always been fascinated by the sheer variety of expressions for death - it was the first thing I ever looked up in a thesaurus and it didn't disappoint.
    I love your phrase: 'the eternal gluttony of the grave'.

  5. Moptop sent me too - love the blog. Just up my street.

  6. Came from Moptop, too. But I'm not an English teacher like her and Fran and read this fabulous post with something like reverence. Stupendous.

  7. Thank you. And thank you, Moptop.

  8. I must say that I liked al lyour posts so far.
    Death can be a fascinating topic if discussed this way.