Speaking of death

Christians have an opportunity to eschew euphemisms and talk honestly about mortality.

When my father died a couple of years ago, my family asked me to take the lead in organizing his funeral. I was happy to take this role: I am an experienced cleric used to working with funeral directors, and I have a strong understanding of the funeral process. What I’d never previously experienced—at least not from the point of view of a grieving person—is how readily those involved in the ministrations around a death speak in euphemisms. Perhaps it was a token of my grief, but I was annoyed by how many people couldn’t even say that my dad had died; most people, including the funeral director, said, repeatedly, that he’d “passed.”

Does it matter? At one level, no. The phrase “passed away” has been used to refer to death for 500 years. Still, it troubles me theologically. I fear that the prevalence of using passed as a way of speaking (or not speaking) of death indicates a society frightened by the finality of death, one that has opted for an overly spiritualized response to the last enemy.

A common refrain in my clergy circles is about how, on visits to plan funeral services with the bereaved, the only person prepared to use the “D” word is the priest herself. The bereaved will typically resort to any number of euphemisms to avoid it. This is entirely understandable. Shock is a natural reaction to death and, as creatures of language, we may be inclined to retreat to clichés that seem to soften the blow.