Talking About Death

Specifically, how do we talk about it when someone has died? This article was posted on Facebook by my friend Fr. Jody Howard. “People don’t pass away” by Peter W. Marty on Christian Century. The site has apparently been recycling this story periodically since it was published in 2017. It is well meaning.

I passed on the chocolate dessert tray in the restaurant last night, tempting as it was. I dread passing through the TSA screening lines at the airport when I’m in a hurry. I pass columns like this your way hoping to stir your heart and mind on matters of faith and life.

One thing I will never pass, however, is away. I expect to die, and you’d be smart to expect the same. But neither of us will “pass away.” I know the phrase has become increasingly popular in recent decades; some would say irritatingly popular.

… Jesus Christ overcame death and the grave. We’re never told he holds a victory flag over our passing away. If that were the case we’d have to rewrite Paul to read: “‘Passed away has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O passed away, is your victory? Where, O passed away, is your sting?’”

“People don’t pass away” by Peter Marty.

Marty feels this use of euphemism is problematic both because it distances us from the reality of death (partially true) and obscures the theological truth that Christ has overcome “death and the grave” not “being passed away” (clever but misguided). As Jody wrote,

“It’s only problematic when people are actually avoiding the reality of death. However, prideful pedants who feel a need to correct folks when they say something more euphemistic without evidence that actual denial is going on have another sort of problem.” [He also pointed out how annoying it was the Christian Century keeps recycling this pedantic and unhelpful article.]

There is also the linguistic point that is missed by Marty. A euphemism does not mean that reality is being denied, simply that indirect language is being used. Everyone knows what is meant when I say that my great aunt “passed away” last month. The language is perhaps softer than saying “she died,” but there is no mistaking what it means.

Context, of course, makes all the difference. One commentator recounted how a relative was in care for dementia and declining health. His wife had gone home for some rest and later was called by the nursing staff and told, “we lost your husband.” The poor wife’s immediate thought was “Where is he? How did you lose him?” In that context the phrase “we have lost him” is ambiguous, but “I am sorry, your husband has passed away” would still have been understood.

Death, where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory?

Do we need euphemisms? I think they can be helpful in many ways, not least for Christians in emphasizing that, indeed, Christ has conquered death. Marty and some other commentators on his article seem to ignore the fact that Paul also uses a similar euphemism in 1 Cor. 15:18 “those who have fallen asleep in Christ.” (Don’t let some translations fool you, the verb κοιμηθέντες means to sleep.) In fact, this is found through the NT. For example, Jesus refers to Lazarus as having “fallen asleep” (John 11:11-12, which the NRSV does render in that way to show the ambiguity of the situation), Stephen “falls asleep” when he has been killed (Acts 7:60), and Matt 27:52, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”

It is not too surprising then (unless one only reads the NRSV) that this euphemism has led to whole theologies about “soul sleep.” While I do not think that our souls are “asleep” awaiting the final trump to sound, I do think that the NT authors are intentional in their use of this term. (Of course a good study of first century sources might reveal something…must include Jewish texts as well. NB: 2 Macc. 12:45 and 2 Esd 7:32 use κοίμησις in just this way.) For those who “fall asleep in godliness,” to use the phrase from 2 Macc. 12, the physical end is not final, but simply a transition.

This is of course fundamental to Christian teaching, to the NT. So far from being misleading or providing a false sense of comfort, the use of this euphemism is understandable and conveys and important truth and encouragement. One might argue the same is true for “passing away” from this physical reality into what Paul might have called our “spiritual reality” (1 Cor. 15:42-44). In fact, as Marty himself points out, Paul reminds us that “death has been swallowed up in victory.” That is a pretty good reason for no longer saying that someone has “died” as it is too final for Christian belief.

All of that being said and those who know me will not be surprised that I write this, I do think we avoid death and grieving in our western societies. After our son died my mom made the comment that she wished we still wore black armbands for 6 months or a year. Then folks would know that we are in mourning and that our world has been forever altered. Such signals and the corresponding consideration that others offer are sorely lacking in our society today.

Not long after Mack had died I was at an event for students admitted to our college. I noticed a woman dressed all in black and wearing a black rosette. I knew that some observant Jews exhibited their morning this understated way. After I introduced myself I asked, “How are you doing?” She immediately stepped into that small opening to tell me that her youngest son had died just over a week before. In fact, her older son, who was standing next to me and had been admitted to our college, had tried to save his brother, administering CPR until the paramedics arrived. They shared their story with me because I had noticed their disposition and asked how they were doing. That was all. The simple sign of black made me sensitive to their need and grief. The older son attended our college and it was with tears in my eyes that I hugged him, his mother, and father after graduation.

We need to acknowledge not simply death, but grief. We cannot run away from it. No one is fooled by the euphemisms and some can not only be healthy but theologically powerful and, most of all, truthful. But most of all, allow yourself and others to grieve. Describe your loved one’s death as you will, but mourn and we will mourn with you.

Grant, O Lord, to all who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing as those without hope, but in thankful remembrance of your great goodness, and in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love. And this we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer, p. 505.

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