Tag Archives: to die or pass away

The language of death and dying


I’ve recently marked an anniversary of my beloved partner’s untimely death, and a new musical work addressing the subject of dying is preoccupying my professional mind. We find it hard to talk about death. Even in our commonly unfiltered world in which our every thought and observation is broadcast widely and uncensored, the subject of death and dying is one of our last lingering taboos — or at the very least an area of verbal discomfort. There are worldwide historical taboos banning the utterance of a deceased person’s name; Freud argued that such taboos stem from the fear of the presence or of the return of the dead person’s ghost. Many of us find it hard to express our condolences to the recently bereaved, or even simply to report on a person’s death: we struggle emotionally, empathically and linguistically to find the right words. And so the verb “to die” — so stark in its definitive and final form, and yet so direct and honest in its simplicity — is often and increasingly replaced by words and sayings that soften the idea of this fearful human fate that befalls us all. Apparently more pronounced among American rather than British English speakers is a growing tendency to reach for expressions such as “passed away”, “passed on”, or simply “passed” to articulate the fact that their loved ones have made their final journeys; for many, the verb “to die” is either too harsh or fails to embrace the notion of life enduring, religiously or spiritually, beyond the grave. But there are also many who prefer to address the ultimate human act of submission using the three-letter word that best describes it, honestly and unambiguously.  Continue reading