When those who believe in the Christian view of the world—or any view that involves the survival of the soul—use “departed” and “passed away,” we are using literal language. Death is the end of this bodily life, but it is not the end of our human being.

November is traditionally a month for remembrance of the dead. In the northern hemisphere, it is the time of the falling of leaves (even in southeast Texas where I am) and the steady narrowing of the sunlight such that six o’clock seems like ten. On western Christian calendars the first day of the month is All Saints, a day set aside to remember those saints whose race has been finished, to use Pauline language. The next day is All Souls, a day to remember all the faithful departed and not just those whose virtue and faith were heroic and visible. For Americans, November 11 is also Veterans Day, a celebration of all those who served their country in the United States Armed Forces. While Memorial Day, celebrated in May, is the day Americans set aside for remembrance of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, the fallen are certainly not excluded from our thoughts on this day. And no wonder, since the day itself was chosen because it commemorated the end of the bloody First World War in 1918. In fact, in British Commonwealth countries, November 11 is the day on which those who died in battle are remembered.

It is, then, no wonder that death is on the mind. But how is it on the mind? Our language gives us a clue. Even in my first paragraph you can see that I have used: “those whose race is finished,” “the faithful departed,” “those who made the ultimate sacrifice,” and “the fallen.” All of these phrases could well have been replaced by “the dead” or “those who died.” And yet I did not use them. Why not?

Some might answer: “He thinks he’s a fancy-pants writer. He’s going for ‘elegant variation.’” Others might explain that the phrases betray a failure to face up to the ugliness of death. They are simply euphemisms, what Merriam Webster calls “an agreeable or inoffensive expression” substituted “for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”

But are they? I was thinking about this the other day because of an argument I had about the usage of “passed” instead of “died.” The gentleman in question insisted: “Dying is bad enough. Don’t make it worse by saying they ‘passed.’” To my demurral, he insisted that “passed” and “passed from this life” are simply “flowery euphemisms,” “vulgar,” even “egregious.”

Yet is “passing” a euphemism? Gary Martin writes in his article on the variation “passed away” at Phrases.org that it is a likely contender for “one of the oldest euphemisms known in English.” Yet he notes that in its fifteenth-century origins, it was merely “a literal description” of an event, namely the departing of the soul for its journey to Heaven or Hell that only truly commenced with the funeral. (In fifteenth-century England, they likely would have believed most people were destined for a layover in Heaven’s spiritual mud room—Purgatory.) Martin cites one of the earliest usages in The Lay Folkes Mass Book (ca. 1400): “Graunt…rest & pese…to cristen soules passed away.” Grant rest and peace to Christian souls passed away!

My interlocutor thought that such an original usage was what Dr. Johnson described as “cant.” As Boswell quotes him in the Life, Johnson describes such language as the result of “thinking foolishly.” My interlocutor described it as “affected” and “unreal” use of religious or “pietistic language” that implied some sort of “affected piety or goodness.”

I confess I don’t quite understand such an accusation. If the original usage was what they believed was happening, how was it being used to imply such things? In that original view, passing away was a neutral concept: some were passing on to “a better place,” but some were passing to Purgatory, often conceived in fifteenth-century England as a kind of lesser but cleansing Hell (Heck?), and some to Hell itself. This is not an affection of piety or goodness but a view of the end of earthly life as the beginning of a new stage.

In short, the decision of whether “passed,” “passed away,” and all the other ways of saying “died” are euphemisms is to be made on the basis of what one thinks life and death are. I readily consent that many of the common phrases for death are sheer euphemisms: “pegged out,” “bought the farm,” “cashed in his chips,” “kicked the bucket,” “pushing up daisies,” and others are simply avoiding the reality of death. “Fallen,” which I used above, probably fits in this category, though like Shakespeare’s “shuffled off this mortal coil,” it is a poetic one.

But when those who believe in the Christian view of the world—or any view that involves the survival of the soul—use “departed” and “passed away,” we are using literal language. Death is the end of this bodily life, but it is not the end of our human being. To be “at home in the body” is to be “away from the Lord,” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians. This is the language of travel, which involves passage from one “place” to another. Like those fifteenth-century English spiritual progeny, he had no intention of rendering what he called “the last enemy” “inoffensive” or “bland.” He too was speaking blunt and literal terms about what death was—a journey whose final destination, he hoped, would end in the place where he considered his full and final citizenship to lie. And yet, as he warned the Corinthians, it was a journey whose penultimate destination was the final day in court: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.”

Perhaps, however, my interlocutor and I were both right. For those who do not believe there is anything but this world, “passed away” is an egregious and vulgar euphemism, useful only to avoid staring into the abyss lest it wink at them. Perhaps not as vulgar or egregious as “worm food” or “taking a dirt nap,” but vulgar and egregious all the same.

Yet it is not clear to me that those of us who use “passed” and “departed” and all the rest of the terms deriving from biblical, Christian, and generally theistic understandings in literal ways ought to discourage such euphemisms as these. For if hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, euphemism is the tribute unbelief and half-belief pay to faith.

As with those relativists who keep prattling about what is “right” and “wrong,” I silently thank God for the inconsistencies of those who say bodily death is “final” yet speak in ways that belie it. The tongue is a fire, says St. James. Perhaps the egregious and flaming euphemisms of the half-believers will burn away their unbelieving halves.

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The featured image is “Funeral for a fisherman of Skagen” (1902) by Michael Peter Ancher, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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