Whispered euphemisms obscure the difficult finality of death. When people die, they are gone forever. This is tragic and true. But it’s better to confront hard truths than to sweeten them up with fragrant words.
A couple of months ago, we had our dog euthanized. He had been sick for a while. During the last few days, he suffered terribly. The polite way to speak of this is to say, in the passive voice, “our dog was put to sleep.”
This may be suitable for parents breaking sad news to children. But adults should be honest and forthright among themselves. More than one person has said, “I’m sorry your dog passed away.” They are trying to be compassionate. But the dog did not gently “pass away.” He was suffering and we asked the vet to kill him.
This was not easy. But it was the right decision. It was very sad. But the dog was better off dead. It sounds cold to say it. But it is true.
Euthanasia is Greek-based jargon that avoids the old-fashioned phrase, “mercy killing.” Euthanasia seems less blunt. But “mercy killing” honestly admits that this is a kind of killing.
One problem is that killing seems evil. But killing is not absolutely wrong. It is not wrong when it comes from a place of compassion and respect. It is more honest to admit this than to confuse ourselves with euphemisms.
Death is veiled by euphemisms. Consider phrases like “passed away,” “passed on,” or simply “passed.” There is a kind of cloying phoniness here. Indeed, “passing” connotes a kind of fakery. We use this verb to describe what happened when counterfeit money is passed or when someone passes themselves off as someone or something else.
“Passing on” makes death out to be a transition to some other state. The Bible teaches that this form of life passes away (see 1 Corinthians 7:31) and that “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
“Passing” is also passive. We pass footballs and kidney stones. The object passed is passive in the process. To say that a person passed away takes away agency. To my ears, it sounds more respectful to say “he died” than that “he passed away.” It is nobler to imagine dying as something we do—our last and final act—than to imagine being passed around by fate or the gods.
If we must speak this way, I suppose “passed away” is preferable to “passed on.” To say that Jane Doe “passed on” assumes she went somewhere else. That might be true. But we don’t know where Jane has gone. She may be in a worse place or a ghost trapped in limbo. This spookiness can freak you out. The idea of “passing away” is simpler. It tells us that Jane is gone without asking us to speculate about where she went.
Sometimes this expression is shortened and people simply say, “Jane Doe passed.” This phrase seems to require an object like a kidney stone. And it is ambiguous. To say Jane passed might mean that she got a C on an exam. One recent newspaper article used the expression twice to refer to two different deceased persons. The author is trying to be polite. But the phrasing is annoying. Jane Doe is dead. Let’s not beat around the bush.
For some, there is a taboo or phobia involved in saying words like “dead” and “death.” Maybe folks fear that these words will somehow conjure up the Grim Reaper. But honesty is the best antidote for fear. It is the whispers, the speculation, and the innuendo that causes the shadows to grow. Dying is a part of life. Everyone we know will do it someday—including you and me.
Sometimes it is even better to be dead, as in the case of my dear suffering dog. It is better to affirm our mortality than to pretend that we merely pass away. It is better to shed light on death than to pass over it with euphemisms that obscure its sadness and its finality.