Over my decades as a journalist, then as a writer of books and screenplays, I became fascinated by the use of euphemisms - particularly by people who cannot bring themselves to use the word “died”.
A death is upsetting
for the overwhelming majority of a deceased person’s close family and friends,
but I can't understand what is at all offensive about "died". We will
all die at some time. We might wish to be immortal, but using euphemisms such
as "pass", "passed", "passed on", "gone to
be with our Lord", "gone to their reward", "present with
the Lord", "promoted to glory" or even "gone to a better
place" can't disguise the truth.
I recently came
across news of a distant relative that had me scratching my head: “Born into an
eternal life” and giving a date. It took me minutes to realise that I was being
informed that this person had died. Another head-scratcher was spotted in an Australian rural newspaper: "Mr Johnson was bereaved of his mother". That's an interesting way of saying that his mother had died.
Many of those who
prefer the euphemisms are members of various religions, but Christianity's King
James Bible is certainly not averse to using "died". Indeed, a quick
scan shows that it is used 189 times. It even states that Jesus Christ died.
There is nothing inconsistent in using "died" and believing that there is an afterlife. Death is a medical event that must come before a soul or spirit - if such a thing exists - goes on to Heaven or Hell or some other agreeable place, or rejoins previously-deceased family members.
My mother was an enthusiastic Christian who rarely missed church on a Sunday, and although she made careful plans for her funeral and thanksgiving service, she never once to my knowledge used a euphemism to describe what would happen at the end of her life. I also don’t recall her ever suggesting that she was going to rejoin my churchgoing father who had died decades before her.
An aunt who was an equally committed Christian was adamant that she would "die". She would have been very upset had she known that the funeral director changed her newspaper death notices from "died" to "passed on".
Out of curiosity I
began looking at death notices in two British newspapers, the conservative Daily Telegraph and the liberal Guardian,
to see how many used “died” or a euphemism or avoided both. In the snapshot of
about a week, the majority used “died”, rather than a euphemism. But there
was also a significant number that avoided both, leaving it obvious what had happened
because the notices were in the Deaths column. The Telegraph score: 23 died, 5 passed away, and 6 used neither. The Guardian had 27 died, 8 passed away and 10 mentioned neither.
It is not just religious believers who prefer to skirt around our departure from this existence. The administrator of a Facebook group to which I belong insists on using "passed on" because it seems to him to be a kinder word than "died". I disagree. There are a great many non-believers who find this not just wrong but bordering on the offensive.
I know that at some time - not too soon, I hope - I will die. As a happy atheist, my death will be beginning of what some might euphemistically term "eternal sleep", but it would be an illogical conceit on my part to believe that I have a soul that will continue in another form. If anything is passed on, it will, perhaps, be through my writing over the years and memories held by my close friends and my descendants. There is, of course, no guarantee that all of this will be flattering.
A Q&A comment from musician Midge Ure, Guardian, September 2, 2023: What happens when we die? "Other people get sad."