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VOL. 43 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 24, 2019

Flowery terms for death just won’t ‘leave this world’

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People don’t seem to die very often in the South. I don’t mean that Southerners live forever, though some sweaty July and August days can seem to last an eternity. They’re just less likely to be described as having died.

Instead, they “passed away.” Or, in still shorter form, they simply “passed.”

At which point they aren’t described as being dead. They’re “gone.”

The whole issue of mortality has been on my mind of late, following the recent departures of three former colleagues, all in my age range and each of whom basically dropped dead without warning.

But I’ve long been intrigued by the language surrounding death. Words are pretty much my stock in trade, and I pay attention to how they’re used. Or misused.

Not that I’m suggesting “passed away” and “gone” are in any way a misuse of language. I appreciate both for what they are: euphemisms for a situation that can be pretty hard to deal with.

They cushion a harsh reality, and if there’s one thing we Southerners like to do, it’s to use language to cushion harsh realities. Bless our hearts.

The words can also convey a sense of transition, rather than finality. In fact, a recent perusal of dozens of death notices in The Tennessean turned up two in which the subject simply “transitioned,” and one who “transitioned to her heavenly home.”

“Passed away” was far and away the favorite description, of course, this occasionally occurring “peacefully” or at other times “suddenly.” “Passed into life eternal” was also represented. In the various permutations, seven times as many people passed as died.

Other phrases included “exited this life,” “left this life,” “departed this life,” “completed her (or his) earthly journey,” “went to be with her Heavenly Father” and “entered eternal rest.”

Perhaps like you, I also check out the obituaries in my hometown newspaper from time to time to see if anyone I know is among the listed.

In addition to the standard forms of passing and a few who’ve just up and died, I’ve seen some flourishes, including “slipped gently into the arms of angels” and “sailed off into the sunset.”

The last phrase was used to describe the exodus of a former Coast Guardsman and bigtime shipbuilder. And one of my favorites was this: “Relinquished her earthly duties to accept a higher calling.”

The assumption seems always to be that the late loved one has a nonstop ticket to the Pearly Gates, as opposed to, well …

The English language is, of course, filled with other ways of describing the end of life. A network of online obituaries, Legacy.com, listed, after “passed away,” the following in descending order:

• Went to be with (the/his/her) Lord.

• Went home

• Departed

• Entered eternal rest

• Was called home

• Left this world

• Succumbed

• Lost his/her battle

• Slipped away

There are scores of others, from the irreverent – gave up the ghost, bought the farm, kicked the bucket, went belly up, cashed in his chips – to the Shakespearean “sleep of death.”

The irreverent terms are generally reserved for strangers. Or maybe somebody famous, but certainly not family. We’re not going to say that Uncle Ned croaked. Wouldn’t be polite to his memory, even if Uncle Ned met his Maker while trying to break his own personal record for Southern Comfort shots.

Still, I believe a certain amount of irreverence is fitting when we’re talking about ourselves. Far and away the best description of a life extinguished comes to us from Monty Python. True, it’s applied to a bird. But poetry is poetry:

“’E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ’E’s expired and gone to meet ’is maker! ’E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ’e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ’im to the perch ’e’d be pushing up the daisies! ’Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ’E’s off the twig! ’E’s kicked the bucket, ’e’s shuffled off ’is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!”

I suspect any of us would be happy with a send-off like that, once we’ve become … ex-people.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.

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