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.