Is it Better to Die or to Pass Away?

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. 

Death and Dead Bodies

Deep questions about life and death and dead bodies

Fresno Bee, June 12, 2015

  • Medal of Honor ceremony, Fresno Public Administrator’s Office case are examples
  • We are appalled by corpse abuse, yet philosophers argue that dead people can’t really be harmed
  • The dead would want us to love life and stop worrying about them
medal of honorIn Bakersfield, the cops are being sued because an officer “tickled” the feet of a corpse, saying he “loved playing with dead bodies.” In Oklahoma, a woman slashed and dismembered her enemy’s body while it lay in a casket in a funeral home. And in Fresno, employees of the Public Administrator’s Office allegedly stole property from dead people’s estates.

Some believe that the dead haunt us when disrespected. Ghosts may speak from the grave to condemn such actions. However, if there is an afterlife, I hope that the dead have more elevated concerns. I doubt that the dead really worry about their mortal remains.

Those who mock or mar dead bodies do have a malicious intent. Such deeds are wrong because they harm grieving loved ones left behind. But these are also oddly “victimless” crimes, since the dead cannot be harmed.

Similar puzzles arise when we praise or honor the dead. PresidentObama recently awarded posthumous Medals of Honor to two long dead soldiers who fought in World War I. Obama explained, “It is never too late to say thank you.” How nice. But also — how weird. Can soldiers from previous centuries receive our gratitude?

I discussed these issues with James Stacey Taylor, a professor at the College of New Jersey who is an expert on the philosophy of death. Taylor maintains that a corpse is merely an object. It can’t really be harmed.


Taylor understands that grieving is often focused on the dead body. The living gain closure from knowing that a loved one’s body is safely disposed. The living can also take comfort in honors given to the dead. But Taylor doesn’t believe that any of this can make any difference to the dead person.

Taylor agrees with the ancient Epicureans, who argued that your dead body is no longer “you.” It’s a mistake, for example, to imagine that when your body is buried, you will be aware of the clay pressing down upon you. It won’t matter to you whether your body is torn apart by wild beasts, or burnt on a pyre. You won’t know the difference.

Understanding this can liberate you from fears about death. It can also make it easier to see the value of signing up for organ donation. When I’m done with my body I won’t need it anymore. Let someone else benefit from it, if they can.

We are often confused about the value of the body. Some want to claim that all we are is our bodies. But a person is more than a body. Persons are characters. They have stories, plans, values and ideas. My personality extends into the projects and ideas that make up my life. My personality is constituted by those I love: they are part of me and I am the result of them.

When I die, I hope that some of my projects will be completed and that my loved ones will flourish. My least concern is what will become of my corpse.

Our treatment of the dead is symbolic of our other values. When we award posthumous medals and treat dead bodies with care, this symbolizes how deeply we value human persons. That’s why crimes against the dead are so disturbing. We suspect a character flaw in the hearts of those who steal from the dead or desecrate corpses. Those who abuse the dead are cruel, callous and cold-hearted. But to think that the dead can actually be harmed by actions done to their mortal remains is to be too attached to the idea that we are ever simply a body.

We honor the dead by completing their projects and cherishing the grieving people they love. These values, ideas and persons are much more important than the corpse that is left behind.

I imagine that if we could ask them, the dead would tell us to celebrate life and stop worrying about death. They would want us to focus our moral concern on the living, not the dead. After all, the dead can no longer be harmed or benefited. If the dead could speak, I imagine they would say that death arrives too early, and that we should love life and nurture the living, before it is too late.
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The Ethics of Death

Don’t avoid the big questions about death

Fresno Bee, February 20, 2015

Death prompts serious reflection. If death is a dreamless sleep, there is no reason to fear it, since “you” won’t know you are dead. But if death opens the door to another life, where God metes out justice, evildoers ought to fear death and good people should look forward to it.the-death-of-casagemas-1901-1.jpg!Blog

These issues are the focus of a new book, “The Ethics of Death.” The book provides an interesting dialogue between Lloyd Steffen, a scholar of religion, and Dennis Cooley, a humanist philosopher. I am on a panel with the authors this weekend at a conference in Southern California, discussing the meaning of death.

This big question has deep roots. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that death was annihilation. He thought this was a liberating idea, since it cured the anxiety created by religious stories of reward and punishment. Don’t worry about being dead, Epicurus advised, because your own death will literally be nothing to you. Epicurus and his followers ignored religion and focused on living long and living well.

The early Christians argued directly against the Epicureans and their indifference about death. Augustine argued, for example, that the Epicureans vainly pursued merely fleeting satisfactions. Augustine thought that real happiness is only found in eternal blessedness after death.

Epicurean affirmation of mortal finitude may help us savor the pleasures of life. If the Epicureans are right, ethics becomes a matter of prudence: clean living helps us prosper in this life. But Christians and others who long for eternal life will argue that the joys of this life are shallow and worthless. If we believe in an afterlife, ethical action takes on infinite weight.

A variety of concrete moral implications flow from this dispute. For example, if death means annihilation, then the death penalty is not much of a punishment, since once the criminal is dead he is no longer being punished. A harsher punishment might keep the bad guy alive in order to cause him to suffer as long as possible. On the other hand, if there is an afterlife, then execution speeds the criminal on to final judgment.

Or consider suicide and euthanasia. If death is nonexistence, then death could provide relief in the face of terrible suffering. But those who believe in an afterlife tend to think that suicide is immoral because our lives are not entirely our own to dispose of.

Despite the import of these issues, we often ignore them. Perhaps they are too difficult to think about. But the fact of the matter is that you can’t grow younger and you can’t avoid death.

Phillip Levine, Fresno’s beloved and recently departed poet laureate, once lamented the fact that it takes a very long time to believe the simplest facts of life: “that certain losses are final, death is one, childhood another.”

In another poem Levine said, “no one believes that to die is beautiful.” Levine suggested that in death we might join the waters of the world, flowing into every crack and crevice. Perhaps something beautiful happens when we give up the ghost and join the flow of nature. A poet’s ear may be needed to hear this.

Reflection on death naturally gives way to poetry. In his last days, Socrates wrote poetry and composed hymns. But he also philosophized until his final moments, talking with his friends and speculating about the afterlife.

Music, poetry, religion, and philosophy are expressions of the depth of the human spirit. Consciousness transforms brute experience into meaning. Awareness of death gives urgency to the soul’s need to express itself. We sing and talk and write because we want to leave a fluttering trace of ourselves in the void. If we never died, would we bother to think or talk at all?

To be conscious is to be surrounded by darkness. We do not recall the nothingness before life. Nor can we see beyond the shadows of death. The great religious and philosophical dialogue is an attempt to shed some light on this surrounding gloom.

Death gives meaning to life. Unfortunately, we each have but one lifetime to pray, argue, and sing, while the light still shines. At stake in this discussion is simply everything.

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