Skip to Content

American Attitudes

Hush, Hush. Americans do not speak very openly or in much detail about death. Rather they allude to it, avoiding tackling the subject directly, as they would talk about sexual matters. Americans do not die. They “pass away, “expire,” “kick the bucket,” “go to their reward,” “breathe their last,” “cash in their chips,” “meet their maker,” “depart this life,” “give up the ghost,” or other avoidances. Insurance companies advertise plans designed to meet “your final expenses.” Once death arrives, its victims are not “dead.” Instead, they are “loved ones,” “the departed,” “the deceased,” the “late so and so.” Rather than being buried, the dead are “laid to rest” or “sent to their reward.” Those about to die are “terminally ill.” Since pets tend to predecease their owners, perhaps the most common death experience Americans deal with involves the loss of a dog or cat. For animals, the same euphemisms apply.

Through much of American history, death, sometimes by violence and often by sudden disease, was an everyday experience. Today it is remote. People no longer die at home, but in nursing homes, hospitals, or hospices. When they die, they do so within a cultural structure that may not include close, supportive families or ingrained cultural rituals for acceptance of death and grieving. At the same time, a deep sensibility of optimism and hope has always been a part of the American psyche. Death in the American mind is something for the distant future, and we hope they invent a cure before we get to that place.

One of the first Americans of worldwide fame, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), wrote “in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Americans expend immense amounts of energy and time trying to prove Franklin wrong about the taxes. The tax planning industry is large and complex. Just as we take great care to minimize the taxes we pay, so too do we show an absolute disdain for death.

If we do plan to die, many of us predict, or at least hope, we will be too old and feeble to know the difference. In any given case, death in America is optional until proved otherwise. We do not like to talk about it.

Next Section:Keep it at a Distance

Death in America: Chapter Home

Life in the USA Home Page.