Have you noticed that no one seems to die anymore? Don’t get me wrong, people still continue to cease to be alive, their metabolic processes having come to an end: we are presently in the middle of a global pandemic that has ended the lives of hundreds of thousands. I’m not talking about that — I’m talking about the way we talk about death. More and more, I’ve noticed that people are resorting to euphemisms to talk about death. People don’t die, they pass away, depart, are lost, or go home.

My anecdotal experience has been born out by the data. A few months ago, a friend of mine conducted an examination of the language used around instances of death and posted it on Reddit. He had heard me talk about this phenomenon and wanted to see if it were true. He used NewsBank’s “America’s Obituaries & Death Notices” database to search 66,477,915 death announcements from 1985-present and discovered a major shift starting in 2000 toward replacing the word died with euphemisms. In 2015, such euphemisms overtook died in popularity. (See, image below)

This increase was found in semi-formal contexts — death notices in newspapers and online, but the usage in informal contexts likely shows an even greater disparity. I am sure that in your own experience, you are likely to encounter pass away and passing with far more frequency than die and death.

WHY WE AVOID DIFFICULT LANGUAGE

On some level it’s easy to understand why we do this; it’s the same reason we employ any euphemism: to avoid an unpleasant reality. It’s the reason we refer to civilian deaths in a war as collateral damage, an army killing its own troops as friendly fire, or firing someone as letting them go, not to mention the various polite euphemisms we employ to talk about bodily functions or sex. We seek to avoid speaking directly about those topics we find uncomfortable or unpleasant.

And death is certainly the most unpleasant reality we have to face. It is probably why we have come up with so many euphemisms for death. Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot Sketch by gives us a decent-sized sample of the euphemisms for death we employ: demised, passed on, is no more, ceased to be, expired, gone to meet one’s maker, late, bereft of life, rests in peace, pushing up the daisies, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible. To that list you could add kicked the bucket, gone to one’s great reward, crossed over, bought the farm, departed, deceased, lost, no longer with us, gave up the ghost, in a better place, gone home, transitioned (that’s a new one I’ve recently encountered), and of course the most common of all: passed away.

And certainly, much of the reason for employing a euphemism like pass away or depart is to cushion the blow. We want to protect people from harsh realities. We feel bad enough for those who are grieving and we don’t want to pile on with harsh, blunt language. “I’m so sorry to hear that Fred passed away” just sounds gentler to our ears than “I’m sorry to hear that Fred died.”

And there’s an aesthetic piece, too. In English, the Anglo-Saxon roots are always blunter, more direct, less distant than the Latinate ones — conflict sounds gentler than fight. In the same way, casket sounds more pleasant than coffin. We imagine it easier to talk to a funeral director than an undertaker. Cemetery is a more pleasant place than a graveyard. Departing sounds softer than death.

THE VIRTUES OF EMBRACING DIRECT LANGUAGE

Even given that most euphemisms are employed with the best of intentions, there are three reasons why we should try to avoid the euphemisms and speak directly about the reality of death.

1. Accuracy

Euphemisms don’t always accurately describe what happened. Take pass away, for example. The phrase itself evokes a slow fade-to-black, a drifting away peacefully. But not everyone dies that way. Some people die in tragic accidents or as the result of acts of violence. Others die from natural causes — heart attacks, aneurysms, etc. — but very suddenly. In these cases, a phrase like passed away doesn’t fit. And in some cases, it can even conceal reality.

Some years ago, a professional football player was murdered. His team published a statement mourning the passing of their player. In this case, the language did not just soften the reality of this man’s death, it obscured it. In the same way, the deaths of victims of a pandemic whose deaths need not have happened ought not to be described in the same way that we might reserve for the death of an elderly family member who dies peacefully, surrounded by family at the end of a long, happy life. As an issue of justice, we cannot allow the reality of death to be obscured, especially when that death is needless, violent, or unjust. Death needs to be named in order to be addressed.

2. Honesty

At the heart of all euphemisms is a desire to avoid a painful reality and that means that there is a little bit of dishonesty involved. Not the major outright fabrication of a lie — it’s not denying that the person has died at all — but it’s more on the order of the socially acceptable white lies that we use to grease the rough spots of our social interaction. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t help. Indeed, it may actually make the problem of grief worse.

Our inability to name death prevents us from embracing lament. The person grieving the death of a loved one is not helped by avoiding the reality of death. In some ways, their grieving process can be delayed by an inability to come to terms with the reality of death. The grieving process can be hindered by language that obscures that reality just as it can be helped by language that engages it with honesty.

But honesty is not only for the sake of those who mourn. Honesty about death is the only way to speak meaningfully about life. And that leads us to the final point.

3. Power

This final point is admittedly a religious one, but it serves as an illustration for a broader principle.

My Christian tradition is centered around one core proclamation: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Christianity’s sacred scriptures, creeds, hymns, and witness are all built around this stunning reversal of the great brokenness of death. Christianity exists because of the Resurrection, what New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson described as “the engine” that drove the early church.

But without the reality of death, the Resurrection is meaningless. If we are all immortal spirits who pass on from one life to the next, then what does the Resurrection prove? If death is not meaningful, then there is nothing to reverse, no hope to be gained, no world to be changed and reborn. It’s just a neat parlor trick.

But if death is real, if death marks a decisive end to an individual, then the Resurrection is a powerful victory over that reality. It signals to the believer that God is at work, that the brokenness of the world — violence, hatred, injustice, and death — do not have the final say. And in that proclamation is power: the power to commit to living out lives of peace, love, justice, and life. The power to resist the structures of evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. And the power to claim the most life-changing practice of all: hope.

There is hope in Resurrection. But that is only because there is reality in death. Resurrection isn’t life after death; it’s life out of death.

Hope is not sentimentality; it’s not optimism. It is declaration of faith in the possibility of a better world in the midst of a broken one. And in order for that hope to be genuine, it has to acknowledge the reality of world it would seek to transform.

THE FINAL WORD

Now, this entire piece is not meant to be scolding — it’s not meant to be used as a cudgel to bash people over the head who like to use euphemisms like passed away, departed, or gone on. It’s meant to encourage us all, at a time when the challenges of our society are literally ones of life and death, to be able to name the reality we face — with integrity, honesty, and with hope. And in so doing, we can claim a power that does not deny the reality of death, but neither does it give it the last word.

Retired Methodist pastor, lawyer, language nerd, and Red Sox fan. Upstate NY transplant in DC. Author of “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

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