When I was watching news reports of George Michael’s death yesterday, I was struck by how many of them used the word “passed” or “passed away” compared to the word “died.” (Newspapers seem to use “died” more often than verbal reports.) Here, for instance are three Twitter reports:
It seems to me that people try to avoid using the “d-word”, and have done so for a while. In a cemetery in Cornwall, for example, I saw that a lot of gravestones gave the date of death as “fell asleep on. . .”. (The Old Testament, which doesn’t refer to an afterlife, also uses that phrase.) Other euphemisms include “passed on” and such; Wikipedia gives a long list of less polite synonyms for death, including “croak,” “count worms,” and the classic from Monty Python’s “Dead parrot” sketch, “joined the choir invisible.” And of course there are the past-tense verbs like “rests in peace” (also in the Python sketch).
I can think of three reasons why people try to avoid the word “died” in obituaries (when I have to report a friend’s or relative’s death to others, I always used “died”):
- It reminds us bluntly of our own mortality
- It is considered insensitive and cold, and therefore impolite
- It comes from religions in which people believe that death is not final, and therefore use phrases like “passed on” to suggest that the deceased has gone to a better world (the possibility of a worse world is never mentioned!)
And, of course, it could be all three of these. What do you think?