Have you noticed that hardly anyone “dies” anymore? No, according to their obituaries, they just “pass,” “pass on” or “pass away.” Sometimes they “went to be with their Lord,” “went home to be with Jesus” or were even “ushered into Heaven.”
The dictionary defines an obituary as “notice of a death,” yet death appears to have gone AWOL from current death notices. Even here in progressive, secular Dane County, Wis., where statistics show that at least 43 percent of us have no religious affiliation (something FFRF can rightly claim some credit for), one is hard-pressed to find the word “died” in an obituary.
Out of almost 50 recent obituaries in the Wisconsin State Journal, only four used the word “died.” The rest employed some variation of “passed” or the even more elaborate religious euphemisms. One exception simply announced the individual has “left us,” which seems to have less religious connotation, but still reveals a fearful avoidance of mentioning the fact that this individual died. Even at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we increasingly receive “passing” notices, not death notices, about our nonreligious members.
But please resist this euphemism. Re-embrace death. It’s far more dignified. The reality of death needs to be acknowledged, not obfuscated.
The derivation for “passing” is most certainly religious. “Passing” refers to passing from this world to another. When I googled the phrase “passed,” one article from the Renaissance Funeral Home and Crematory says, “For those who believe in an afterlife for the soul, these euphemisms are not just a saying to make the word ‘death’ sound nicer. For those who believe in the soul and an afterlife, ‘passed away’ is a literal description of what they think happens to a soul after death.”
The article also notes, “Many individuals don’t like to think of death when thinking of a loved one who died because it sounds so final. They may say or want to hear others say ‘passed away’ as a calmer and gentler way of talking about death.”
See what I mean about death denial? “It sounds so final” because there is nothing more final than death! Losing friends, loved ones, even folks we knew of only through their achievements, celebrity or influence, is life’s worst hurt.
It’s not only religious funeral homes telling us “Never say die.” The Cambridge Dictionary claims “pass away” is the “polite expression for die.” Collins dictionary advises, “You can say that someone passed away to mean that they died, if you want to avoid using the word ‘die’ because you think it might upset or offend people.” MacMillan Dictionary similarly describes “pass away” as a way “to avoid saying ‘die’ when you think this might upset someone.”
Of course we should pick our words carefully, especially when talking directly to mourners. When Dan visited India earlier this year, he noticed that when some new acquaintances wanted to alert him to the fact that someone they were speaking of was dead, they would simply say they are “no longer with us.” But in announcing the fact of someone’s death, especially in an obituary, let’s be direct, honest and straightforward.
This creeping euphemism is symptomatic of a larger problem: our culture’s death denialism. Euphemisms in printed obituaries are the least of the problems death denialism creates. Only a handful of states, for example, have passed medical-aid-in dying laws. In most places in the United States, if you have a terminal illness, no matter how much you’re suffering, good luck in finding a legally kinder way to die. We offer our pets a far better death than our human loved ones.
And that is due to the religious nature of death denialism. The impulse that changes “died” to “passed” in an obituary is really the same that leads to our nation’s cruel, obtuse, head-in-the sand refusal to uniformly grant terminally ill individuals control over their own lives and deaths. Because that would be “playing God.” Suffering is sent by God. “They will have their reward in heaven.”
The afterlife is, of course, the ultimate death denial. And the delusion that this world is just a stepping-stone to an afterlife is likewise dangerous. It’s jeopardizing our planet’s very survival. There’s an old hymn that says: “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through. . . . And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” In other words, our real home and objective should be the “afterlife.” The late James G. Watt, President Reagan’s secretary of the interior, famously testified about his anti-environmentalism: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” The idea of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die is a very dangerous concept, especially in a world racked by floods and fires caused by human-made climate change.
We freethinkers who proudly dismiss the myth of an afterlife—thereby adding more value to this life—must not succumb to the death denialism that is behind the extermination of the word “died” from obituaries and vocabularies. However regretfully, nonbelievers face the fact of death. We will all die. As Bertrand Russell wrote, “I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young, and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”
The insistence on using a euphemism for death is part of religion’s triumphalist delusion. A fool’s paradise isn’t paradise; it’s willful self-deception. While the fallacy that death is not final may offer band-aid comfort to some, in fact it cheapens the loss. As Emily Dickinson beautifully expressed:
That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.