At one of the churches I served, I offered a class entitled, “Living Fully, Dying Well.” It was designed to help the participants learn and share about their views on . . . Death.
I asked the group of mostly parents, ranging in age from 30s to 70s, “What was harder, talking to your children about sex or death?” Everyone had had the sex talk. But many hadn’t chatted about—or hinted at—dying and death, even with their adult children. We avoid death like the plague. Hey, we even avoid the word. Our culture has created—and frequently uses—dozens of banal to bizarre euphemisms to give death as wide a berth as possible.
Crossed the Jordan…Departed…Dreamless sleep…Entered the pearly gates…Expired…Gave up the ghost…Had the last curtain call…Kicked the bucket…Laid to rest…Left the room like Elvis…Left us…Met Davy Jones…Met his maker…Passed…Passed on…Passed over…Perished…Returned to dust…Shook hands with Jesus…Six feet under…Sleeps with the fishes…Succumbed…Surrendered…Taken by angels…Taken by God…Taken up to heaven…The big sleep…Was lost…Went home with God…
Can you think of phrases or words I’m missing? I suspect you could, and I haven’t searched for what the Germans or Kenyans or Chinese might say. I’m quite confident other words from other cultures and religions would quickly expand the list.
At the hospice where I work, I listen to the nurses and social workers share about death. I read the medical charts and the notes doctors make. I’m not breaching confidence when I say the professionals and the official charting also avoid death. Variations of the patient passed are popular. I get it. I understand that passed on or passed over reflect the faith tradition of earth and heaven, of passing from the known land of fast food, area codes and cloverleaf freeway exchanges to the Biblical dream of paradise. Or it’s possible the professionals simply don’t want to overuse the inevitable word, “died.” Or maybe they are uncomfortable too?
When I make bereavement calls in my hospice work, I always say death or died. I prefer the truest and simplest words when I talk to a grieving loved one because maybe, just maybe, my choice of words will model honesty for the whole conversation. But whatever words I speak—or whatever words I avoid using for my so-called honest attempts at honesty—death will enter my life and break me down. It will. Soon, my thirteen-year old dog Hannah will die. I will be a wreck, and there’s nothing I can do about it. My puppy’s not the worst of my today or tomorrow encounter with death. It would be easy—and yet nearly impossible—to create the short list of the deaths of friends or family whose death would devastate me. It is like that for all of us.
And so we use words to avoid the unavoidable. We are the Kings and Queens of the Realm of Euphemisms. Still, words are all we’ve got, and I hope you’ll be honest with your loved ones about what you want in your dying and in your death while you’re still a citizen of this known land of fast food, area codes and people that love you more than life itself.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)
Image from here.by