Madeleine Robins

June 13, 2011

Obscenity

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 12:23 AM

I missed last week’s post (I really am trying to post weekly) because I was in Massachusetts for my father’s memorial party.  Yes, I said party.  My father was a big believer in parties, and he left very specific instructions about this one: the Dixieland band that was to play us down to the river where his ashes were to be scattered (by plane) and then triumphantly back again afterward, a real New Orleans funeral; the specific locale; and no “memorial service” or religious overtones whatsoever.  Oh, and the party itself: it’s very much in my father’s character to arrange one last party at which he was the guest of honor.

Well, the skies stayed clear, the party was well attended, my brother made stew and I made cake, and people brought salads and side dishes to share, the band played on, stories were told and Happy Birthday sung (the party was on his birthday, which seemed appropriate) and it was just splendid.  And I got a chance to notice something that I had begun to note in April when my Dad went into hospice care: people who have no problem using all sorts of other, um, technical terms, balk at the D-words: death, die, dying, dead.

I have nothing but praise and gratitude for the hospice workers–social workers, chaplain, nurses–who tended my Dad through his last two weeks of life, as well as for the home health aides who made it possible for my brother and me to be there for Dad, but also get sleep and the odd dinner.  But I began to find it funny, the lengths everyone went to avoid saying “die.”  “When your father passes,” they said.  Often the voice would drop a dozen decibels on the word, even when the word wasn’t the word.  One woman who lived in the same retirement community couldn’t even say “passes.”  “When your father…you know,” she said uncomfortably.  And the people at the funeral home that I dealt with, who were fabulously helpful, know everything you need to know about dealing with “end of life issues” and will happily share that knowledge with you, lowered their voices and used terms like, well, “end of life” when they might have said “death.”

The word obscene, I was told in a drama class in college, derives from the Greek for “off stage,” referring to things too terrible to be shown to the public: Oedipus goes off stage to poke his eyes out after he learns his own ugly secret.  (I should note that I haven’t been able to corroborate this etymological factoid.)  The sort of wholesale death ‘n destruction of, for example, the Die Hard movies, is entertainment, but the death of an elderly man who has had a long, full life is obscene: it can only be spoken of in a hush, with sideways looks to make sure no one else overheard.

My reaction to all this was rather juvenile.  I didn’t quite raise my voice every time I said “die” or “dead,” but I spoke the words as clearly and crisply as I could.  And I still felt like I was yelling in the library.  I made a point of using all the D words, because I couldn’t stand sugar-coating what was happening: my father was dying, on his own terms and after a long, full life.

In the musical The Fantasticks there’s a wonderful, giddy song that used to be called “Rape.”  It does not celebrate sexual battery: it’s about abduction in the old sense, as in the Rape of the Sabine Women (and in later productions the song was re-worded, from “You can get the rape fantastic, you can get the rape polite, you can get the rape with Indians, a truly charming sight…” to “An abduction that’s fantastic, an abduction that’s polite..” etc.).  I understand completely why they made the change–the 2000s are not the 1960s, and our view of what is acceptable has changed.  But in the original dialogue, when one character speaks of the cost of a sham abduction, calling it a rape, and another character protests, horrified, he is told “I know you prefer abduction, but the proper word is rape.  It’s short and businesslike.”

I kept thinking of this all the time I was talking with people about what was happening to my father, two months ago, and then again last weekend at Dad’s memorial.  Death is personal, everyone reacts differently and I don’t want to dictate how other people deal.  But for me, the proper word was “death.”  It’s short, businesslike, non-figurative, and in a weird way I found it more dignified than the alternatives.  But that’s just me.

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10 Comments »

  1. Yes, and yes, and more yes. I flatly refuse to use things like “so-and-so passed” and I don’t even hear things like “so-and-so is in a Better Place” – the phrase floats past my ears and gone. Death, however much we may resent and fear it, is the other end of birth. It’s the closing bracket. And while I understand (sort of) the very human desire to push our fears away from ourselves, I really hope that, when I die, people don’t smother the memory of my life with the gooey syrup that’s really no more than fear of mortality.

    Comment by Deborah Grabien — June 13, 2011 @ 10:33 AM | Reply

  2. Ob scena as the origin of obscene is a myth. The word’s not Latin (wouldn’t be Greek, as ob is a Latin preposition.) It’s Etruscan, as are “persona”, a theatrical mask, which does NOT mean “sounding through.” No one knows what the Etruscan roots must have been.

    Comment by Kit Kerr — June 13, 2011 @ 12:05 PM | Reply

    • Ah, well. When I couldn’t find a source for it, I began to think my prof had played me false, or been mis-informed himself.

      I do think, in terms of writing, that there are some things that are sometimes better done off-stage, not to protect the delicate sensibilities of the audience, but to allow the audience to flex their imaginations.

      Comment by madeleinerobins — June 13, 2011 @ 12:10 PM | Reply

      • Perhaps your teacher was thinking of profane, which I was told meant “outside of the temple.” I use the d-words too. Passing sounds like a grade! I don’t think we get graded at the end.

        Comment by Elissa WeissE — June 13, 2011 @ 2:43 PM

      • Lord, I hope not.

        Comment by madeleinerobins — June 13, 2011 @ 4:27 PM

  3. wonderful, yes, offstage things are used in a dramatic sense when in a play, another method for the audience to engage deeper in the drama. but for our coming to terms with someone dying, you are right, stare the dude right in the face and say his name. or move your pawn.

    Comment by tapedave — June 13, 2011 @ 12:23 PM | Reply

  4. I also dislike the evasions. I can’t remember whether or not I did that before I spent several years volunteering at a hospice. There’s nothing like the community at a hospice to get you looking at death square in the eye. I was still a bit startled when discussing retirement planning with an investment adviser, and he calmly talked about how long the money has to hold out in terms of when I’m likely to die. It would have been more jarring if he’d suddenly gone sotto voce in the same sentence as likely interest rates.

    Comment by janetl — June 13, 2011 @ 8:51 PM | Reply

  5. I think we started using euphemisms when we stopped taking care of everything ourselves. When you had to wash the body, dress it for burial, have a wake in the house and burn candles to dull the smell of death — there was no question what had happened, then. Now, most people are so removed. Our reality is that we can no longer pick up the phone and have a conversation. Our talks are one-sided.

    I’m sorry your Dad died, but am glad to hear that it was a full and happy life, with friends and family to gather and honor his move to a new address. The New Orleans band was inspired, and must have awakened the local MA scene!

    And why didn’t Oedipus whack off the offending member, instead of blinding himself? How symbolism can change….

    Comment by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel — June 24, 2011 @ 5:31 PM | Reply

    • And why didn’t Oedipus whack off the offending member, instead of blinding himself?

      Ask Mr. Sophocles. I suspect it was because he could not bear to look upon his own shame (it seems to me that breaking a mirror would have worked as well, but it’s been years since I read the play.)

      Comment by madeleinerobins — June 24, 2011 @ 5:46 PM | Reply

      • Yes, I know why the play says this — I just have always felt that punishing the children for the parents trespass was always such a passing the buck sort of thing. Which is partly why it was called Fate, I suppose. The other part being that usually the parent would already be dead, in a short-lived world, so of course local society had to punish the children, having no one else to punish.

        From society’s POV — We can’t encourage this, history has proven it’s a bad idea — it all makes sense. From an intelligent POV of not encouraging but not punishing the innocent, it stinks!

        Comment by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel — June 27, 2011 @ 8:35 AM


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