The Grammarphobia Blog

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Q: I repeatedly hear radio ads for “pre-need funerals.” I can’t imagine what such a ritual would be like, or who would sign up for one. Any thoughts on this?

A: The funeral industry is great at coming up with bizarre usages. How about having your loved one referred to as the “cremains”?

To be fair, though, what the “pre-need” advertisers are talking about is a useful product. My mother actually arranged and paid for her funeral, cremation, and associated services a couple of years before she died.

I thought it was a little creepy at the time, but two years later I was very, very glad that everything had been arranged and I had so few decisions to make.

Nevertheless, the expression “pre-need funeral” is ugly. It sounds like having one’s funeral ahead of time. (Would you be allowed to give your own eulogy?) Perhaps “prearranged funeral” would be more in keeping with the event.

I should mention, however, that this isn’t a very new usage. The Oxford English Dictionary has published references for it going back to 1945.

In fact, the earliest citation comes from an ad in the newspaper that gave me my first job in journalism, the Waterloo Courier in Iowa: “Who will pay the Funeral Bill? Ask us today for details of our pre-need plan. No obligation.”

As Mom might have said, holy moley!

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