the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken

Last time I lost a se­man­tic ar­gu­ment, it was with a fu­neral direc­tor. He was draft­ing the death no­tice for a rel­a­tive when I in­ter­rupted with: “Can’t we just say he died rather than he passed?” The fu­neral guy looked at me as if I’d just sug­gested hir­ing a strip­per to jump out of a cake. “We don’t use that word,” he said, “the word to use is passed.” He con­tin­ued writ­ing. This was ob­vi­ously not a sub­ject for de­bate.

Well, not too many peo­ple tell me which words I can and can’t use — not with­out a lengthy di­gres­sion into Latin roots, con­no­ta­tions, com­mon us­age and a bit of bluff.

But this was not my call and I was wary of up­set­ting peo­ple, so I let it pass. But here’s what I wanted to say.

The words “passed” or “passed on” are eu­phemisms. They are ex­pres­sions we use when we are too scared to use the cor­rect word for what we are try­ing to ex­press. They strip an ex­pe­ri­ence of its im­por­tance, its emo­tional weight and of­ten its mean­ing. What’s more, they are de­signed to do that.

Passed isn’t even a clever eu­phemism. Sure, it’s meant to sug­gest some­one who once lived has passed over to the other side, or passed into an­other life, or passed from one state to an­other.

But it doesn’t ac­tu­ally say that. It is a word that takes us half­way into a thought and just leaves us to fig­ure out the rest of it. That is, Catholics might like to think they pass into heaven, athe­ists can think they pass into car­bon, and Bud­dhists can be­lieve they pass into an ant colony or ea­gle’s nest, depend­ing on how they spent their pre-pass­ing time.

So, it’s aptly vague for a so­ci­ety that doesn’t feel com­fort­able talk­ing about what hap­pens af­ter life ends but knows it must be tol­er­ant of ev­ery­one’s views. When the fu­neral direc­tor fin­ishes fill­ing out forms, what’s left is an el­lip­sis of mean­ing, a po­lite pause for some­thing not worth think­ing about.

What’s more, it’s a generic word. Pass is what you say when you de­cide not to have a party pie of­fered at a wake. Pass is what you do when you give some­one a foot­ball. Stu­dents like pass­ing, doc­tors some­times like you to pass wa­ter, and about 15 times a day we all pass wind but no one likes that.

Passed is so pas­sive sound­ing and not just be­cause it re­sem­bles the word pas­sive. It’s a pah word, a plo­sive sound made through lazy lips.

Puh­leeze. It’s placid and some peo­ple think it sounds pleas­ing when com­bined with peace­ful. They like to say it was a peace­ful pass­ing. And that’s the point, isn’t it? We all want to be­lieve that when we leave this life there is no pain, no pres­sure, no plead­ing.

When we anaes­thetise the fi­nal mo­ment of our hu­man­ity with such a pro­saic word, we are sig­nalling that this is not a mo­ment for drama. There should be no wail­ing, teeth gnash­ing, hair pulling. We don’t want re­grets, recriminations or dis­turb­ing re­flec­tions.

We won’t al­low our­selves to rail against the dy­ing of the light, we shall peace­fully pass into the night. Be­cause the fu­neral direc­tor tells us that’s how it is; that’s how it should be; that’s how they like writ­ing the no­tices.

So, I didn’t tell the fu­neral guy but that’s what I told my hus­band on our way home from fill­ing out forms. When I die, I said, I want peo­ple to say she died. Died, died, died. It’s been hap­pen­ing for a long time and I don’t in­tend to break the tra­di­tion.

I didn’t come into this world in a po­lite way, I said, there was pain and blood and howls of ef­fort. There was fear and de­light and waves of pas­sion­ate feel­ings. No one says they passed into life, so why would any­one say they pass at the other end?

Words should re­flect the things they rep­re­sent, and if they don’t, you’re cheated of those things, I said. And, by the way, don’t get that fu­neral guy for my cer­e­mony but the mu­sic was OK and your talk was re­ally mean­ing­ful.

I said a lot of things like that. And my hus­band was pa­tient (an­other po­lite “p” word). But I sus­pect by the end of the jour­ney he wished my mo­ment of pass­ing wasn’t too far off.

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