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Saturday, 17 August 2019

Do you die, or pass on?

One of my several obsessions is an objection to the growing use of euphemisms to describe the death of a person. A death is upsetting for close family and friends, but I can't understand what is at all offensive about the word "died". It is what we will all do at some time. We might wish to be immortal, but using euphemisms such as "pass" (as in when did they 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. 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.

An aunt who was an equally committed Christian was adamant that she would "die", and she would have been very upset had she known that the funeral director changed her newspaper death notices from "died" to "passed on".

But 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.

Anyway, 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 might be termed "eternal sleep". It would be an illogical conceit on my part to believe otherwise. 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.


  1. The notion of "passing" to another state has been embedded in death rituals for thousands of years. And today it exists in many cultures around the world. In using the word "passing" people may mean it in this sense -- without being sentimental, euphemistic or even religious. Ian, you are no longer in the Bush House newsroom and with great respect for a former colleague, can I suggest that you should refrain from imposing mono-cultural BBC journalism from the eighties onto the rest of the world!

    1. Chris, I can't see what my time with the BBC has to do with my posting. I left the corporation more than 20 years ago. It is simply my view that English-speaking journalists should use the neutral and factual word "died" instead of any other form of words, because that is what happens when the body totally shuts down. If non-journalists want to use words such a "passing" or "passed on" or "passed", that is their choice and no business of mine.

  2. Since writing this, I have been reminded that when I was in Kolkata researching my book God's Triangle, the Baptist church that was attended by my missionary relatives had a wall plaque that declared "Arrested by the hand of death, 1st February 1839".


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