This is primarily for my Christian colleagues, but anyone else who may have ideas to contribute, please do!
Do you use the term ‘passed’ as a euphemism for death? I’m hearing it often these days. (Maybe it’s been around forever and I’m just now catching up.) If you say ‘she passed’ instead of ‘she died’, I wonder why you prefer the euphemism and what it suggests to you that the straightforward term does not?
Euphemisms for death are a dime a dozen, of course. We have used them from time immemorial, often in an effort to sweeten the sour reality of death. But not always. Euphemisms can supply the fact of death with specific religious content.
For example, our ancestors in the Christian faith spoke of “falling asleep” to describe the death of those who died before Christ’s expected return. It made emotional sense to speak that way when you thought that his return—and with it, the bodily resurrection of all the dead—was imminent. The person who had died would stay dead for only a little while; it was as if she were sleeping through an ordinary night and would open her eyes and rise again in the morning.
Although few of us hold to the hope of an imminent return these days, this euphemism may still be useful and ‘true’ in that it speaks to a specific Christian hope—the resurrection of the dead. Other common expressions for death and dying may do that too, but their connections to the Tradition seem to me more tenuous.
I almost always prefer to speak plainly about death, forgoing substitute expressions that seem to me to be indirect. For some reason, I especially dislike the expression ‘he passed,’ which is the shortened form of ‘passed away.’ The longer form had the virtue of indicating that a person is gone, passed away. The shorter ‘passed’ leaves you hanging with unanswered questions. Passed to what, through what, over what, into what?
I have wondered if this expression is trying to be Pauline, as when the Apostle says that by our baptisms, we have “passed from death to life. ” But Paul was speaking of a mystic death—the Christian’s sacramental participation in Christ’s death and resurrection—not our actual deaths, although the term works for our actual deaths by pious extension (which is why in some traditions, a white cloth symbolizing baptism is draped over a dead person’s casket or urn). Although there may be some tenuous connection here, I suspect the term ‘passed’ is more likely to have gained currency not from a biblical starting point, but simply from the human tendency to condense things.
What I resist about ‘passed’ is that it makes death sound like a simple transition from one ‘shore’ to another, or one life to another; or as the lifting of some sort of veil or curtain through which one serenely steps into another realm or dimension of existence. The hard fact of death is made to appear sort of gentle, even harmless—there’s nothing to be afraid of or resist. This may work okay for quiet deaths (up to a point, that is, for a death is a death, and all deaths are brutal in some way); but it seems especially inadequate for miserable deaths, of which there are many.
The imprecision of this expression is said to be more comforting to mourners than the hard cold edges of the words ‘dead’ and ‘died.’ I have heard pastors say that those frank expressions are too unbuffered for the family to hear, too shocking for those who are so freshly numb with grief. Maybe. And yet it seems to me that those who are suffering the sting of a loved one’s death hardly need to be shielded from a reality they know all too well is a painful and final one. I always thought that it helped more to name things candidly in a kind and thoughtful way, rather than to call them something else in the hope of avoiding more pain. But I could be very wrong about this.
The expression ‘passed’ is indeed sufficiently vague as to allow us to fill in the blank with all sorts of different ideas about what happened when the person died, and about what happens next, if anything. It also allows us to supply no ideas or affirmations at all if we want to remain comfortably agnostic about the whole business. It sounds sort of “Celtic”—the thin veil, etc.—and anything Celtic these days seems better than other things to many Christians, since we have come to believe (thanks to the ‘Celtic spirituality’ industry) that those Christians were more enlightened, earth-centered, body-centered and lyrical than other Christians were, and are.
The vagueness of ‘passed’ mirrors the fuzzy state of modern Christian theological reflection about death and about what happens after death, as well as the aversion some pastors feel to naming and proclaiming a distinctive biblical message about ‘last things.’ In the past, theologians felt more confident in speaking of particular and general judgments and resurrection of the dead at the Parousia. These days we more often say ‘No one knows’; and we are right—no one knows. No one has even known; but millions who did not know nonetheless believed certain things. Not to take those beliefs seriously into consideration is to write off our ancestors (and many of our contemporaries) as benighted and unsophisticated. This is something the arrogant modern does too often, to our detriment, I think.
We also say that what really matter is living, and living well, in loving service to others and in persevering militancy in causes of justice. Speculation about the form and function of the afterlife, if it exists at all, is fruitless. It diverts us from the more pressing issues of the here and now. Yet many people experiencing the death of loved ones, even social justice activists, continue to ask questions about last things. They want to know, Where is she? Will I see her again? What did she ‘pass’ into? And most people, at least when they are wide awake in the wee hours, have deep questions about themselves and what will happen to them when they die as well. Do we have a way of talking to them about these questions that does not fall back on banal generalities that lack specific Christian content?
I have talked with pastors who think ‘last things’ conversations only reveal how egocentric and self-preoccupied we human beings are—the only sentient beings that refuse to accept the natural order of things, the only ones who have to invent an afterlife to calm our anxieties about ceasing to exist. Of course, we may be the only ones capable of such refusal, and one wonders what might happen if cats and snakes had the capacity to be aware of death in the same way we are aware. (I, for one, am glad they do not appear to worry about such things—my cat is anxious enough as it is just wondering where his next meal is coming from.)
Some pastors offer a reassurance that loved ones are safe in God’s hands and that they will be too; or they assure the surviving mourners that the loved one lives on in heart-held memory; but they sidestep the question of personal existence after death and eventual reunion. A few pastors I know have confided that they have stopped believing in ‘heaven,’ or any other notions of an afterlife, but they avoid saying so among their people, for fear of disappointing them. Others tell me that some of their people have stopped believing in ‘heaven’ too, but don’t admit it for fear of disappointing their pastors! ‘Passed’ seems to them a good expression in this circumstance; it commits you to nothing you don’t believe in anymore, but has a nice spiritual ring to it all the same.
At the same time, I am noticing the increasing popularity of All Saints Day celebrations in progressive Protestant churches. People seem to love the idea that we are, as Hebrews says, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. They fairly shout all the umpteen verses of ‘For All the Saints,’ with its triumphant affirmations about the victors’ crowns of gold and a yet more glorious day. It seems odd that people who love the celebration of the Witness Cloud should be so diffident about speaking of the actual death required to be admitted to it, and about the character of the cloud itself.
I’m not quite sure what to make of all this, given that for millennia the promise of eternal life (whether in a heaven, or on a restored earth, or in a new creation, or in some other form we cannot imagine) figured as the greatest hope and consolation of the Christian life. What do you think? When you have to talk about these things, what do you say?
[Unattributed image taken from http://www.goodfuneralguide.co.uk/category/funeral-cost/%5D