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shameless pleading

Inurnment

And I think we should eliminate all words with “ie” and “ei” because they annoy me

Dear Word Detective: I came across a word I had never seen before while reading a colleague’s father’s obituary: “inurnment.” I guess as he was cremated, he would not be interred, but “inurned” — put in a lovely jar. I thought it was a bad typo, being an editor for 24 years, mainly in Ontario government communications for employees. Have you seen this one before? Did we really need it? — Irene Stewart.

Oh heck, do we really need any of these gazillions of words? I’ve found that I can get by quite well on a typical day simply by pointing and grunting. Granted, this method may not work as well outside Ohio, but I suspect that most things worth saying can be said with about twenty words. Seriously, doesn’t “Go food car” cover great swaths of modern life? “Money me” also seems pretty clear, as does “pizza now.” Throw in “bad cat” and you’re good to go. Trust me on this; a simpler life beckons. Our dog Brownie has a vocabulary of exactly six terms (“food,” “walk,” “cat,” “ride,” “ball” and “green bean” (don’t ask)), and she seems perfectly content.

Oh right, your question. “Inurnment” was a new one to me as well and initially I found the word a bit jarring. Sorry. That could probably be developed into a much more tasteless joke. Anyway, I’m afraid that in this case both you and I are victims of what etymologists call “the recency illusion,” the belief that an unfamiliar word or usage must be new (and often thus suspect) when, in reality, it’s been around since Hector was a pup.

So it is with “inurnment,” which means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “the process of placing the ashes of a cremated body into an urn.” The original sense of “urn” was specifically “vessel used to preserve the ashes of the dead,” and the word, derived from the Latin “urna,” seems to have been rooted in the Latin verb “urere,” meaning “to burn.” “Urn” first appeared in English in this “Aunt in a Can” sense in the 14th century, but the Pottery Barn sense of “urn” as a general-purpose receptacle for your car keys and the like didn’t develop until the early 17th century.

Of course, we would expect “urn” itself to be an ancient word; it’s “inurnment” that sounds like the modern spawn of an especially oleaginous funeral director. But “inurnment” first appeared in print, as far as we know, way back in 1602. And wait, it gets better. “Inurnment” didn’t first appear in some obscure 1602 treatise on bat taxidermy. William Shakespeare bestowed it on us in Act One, Scene IV of Hamlet, when Hammy first encounters, and addresses, his father’s ghost: “Why the Sepulcher Wherein we saw thee quietly enurn’d, Hath op’d his ponderous and Marble iawes [jaws], To cast thee up againe?” (i.e., “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead. In a tomb. In a jar.”).

Interestingly, some versions of this scene I have found online render “inurnment” as “interment,” but that’s an entirely different word. “Inter,” meaning “to deposit the body of a deceased person in the ground,” first appeared in English in the 14th century based on the Latin “interrare,” a verb combining “in” with “terra,” earth. A synonymous term, rarely heard today, is “inhume,” from “in” plus “humus,” Latin for “ground.” Of course, every devotee of the innumerable autopsy shows on American television is familiar with the converse of “inhume,” which is “exhume,” meaning “to dig the poor sap up.”

Incidentally, “jar” as I used it in the silly joke a few paragraphs north of here has no connection to “jar” in the raspberry jam sense, which comes from the Arabic “jarrah,” meaning “earthenware vessel.” The verb “to jar” originally meant “to make an unpleasant grating sound” (and may be of “echoic” or imitative origin). Our modern senses of “to jar,” ranging from “to bump or shock sharply” to “to conflict or cause disquiet or discord” are all later figurative uses of the word.

1 comment to Inurnment

  • David McGrann

    The first time I ever saw the term “inurnment” was in conjunction with the death of a dear family friend. I thought to myself, “What a useless word.” I just figured it was some sort of made-up word used by certain funeral directors in West Virginia; I was shocked that it’s in the OED. Here in Virginia, you never see the term used. The term “interment” is used for any sort of burial or placement of ashes in a columbarium, niche, or memorial garden, and, if there isn’t going to be a formal interment (think of the scattering scene in “The Big Lebowski”), then nothing is said. Frankly, it really isn’t anyone’s business (outside of the family, I suppose), if the deceased is cremated, buried in an expensive casket, or embalmed to the hilt and put on display like Lenin or Mao.

    I suppose I’m just a ridiculous traditionalist, but at least here in Richmond, “Interment Hollywood” at the end of an obituary says volumes.

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