An amusing incident in Noel Coward’s play, This Happy Breed (Act III, Scene 1), finds Frank and his sister Sylvia sitting in the lounge room. Sylvia, a soured spinster, has become an ardent Christian Scientist. Frank and Sylvia have finished supper and are listening to the wireless. Frank’s wife Ethel is in the kitchen.
SYLVIA: There’s not so much to do since Mrs. Flint passed on.
FRANK: I do wish you wouldn’t talk like that, Sylvia, it sounds so soft.
SYLVIA: I don’t know what you mean, I’m sure.
FRANK: (firmly) Mother died, see! First of all she got flu and that turned to pneumonia and the strain of that affected her heart, which was none too strong at the best of times, and she died. Nothing to do with passing on at all.
SYLVIA: How do you know?
FRANK: I admit its only your new way of talking, but it gets me down, see?
(Ethel comes in)
ETHEL: What are you shouting about?
FRANK: I’m not shouting about anything at all. I’m merely explaining to Sylvia that mother died. She didn’t pass on or pass over or pass out—she died.
This conversation is peculiarly modern. It reflects our self-consciousness, our embarrassment about the fact of death. Death is no longer regarded as a subject of polite conversation; it has become a convention to speak of death euphemistically, and to use tactful circumlocutions. Frank’s bluntness is not only callous but crude.
In this matter there has been a radical change in social behavior patterns. In the nineteenth century the processes of birth and reproduction were never mentioned in polite society, but the processes of death were an accepted subject of conversation. Today the processes of death are never mentioned in polite society, but the processes of birth and reproduction are almost a matter of daily ...1
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