Have you noticed how nowadays no one wants to talk about death? There is a growing trend to say that a person has “passed away” or “passed on” as opposed to having died or being dead. I’m quite sure this is another example of the dreadful Americanisation of the English language. In American speak we don’t have failures, we have “sub-optimal outcomes” and there are no such things as problems, only “challenges”.
As a society we still don’t like to talk about death, even though it is an inevitable part of living. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare writes “It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.” But nowadays we seem to want to pretend that death is not actually the end, that it is something other than the permanent cessation of consciousness and all bodily functions. The phrase “passed away” nicely avoids confronting the blunt and inescapable fact of our biology. The fact is, however, that when I am explaining the risks of an obesity surgery procedure to a patient, I don’t talk about the risk of “passing away”; I talk about the mortality rate – the risk of dying. In obesity surgery, the mortality risk is vanishingly small and Healthier Weight’s mortality rate to date is zero but it is still a risk that needs to be discussed.
Notice too how we only apply this timid euphemism to humans. On seeing a dead badger lying in the road, I don’t say to my wife “Oh what a shame, there’s a badger that’s passed away”. In the case of animals we are quite happy to regard them as dying or dead. But this difference in attitude simply reflects our anthropocentrism, i.e. our tendency to regard ourselves as not only special, but as the central and most significant things in the Universe. Dying is just for dumb animals; “passing away” is reserved only for humans.
In exactly the same way we talk about birth (the beginning) we should be quite willing to speak about death (the end). I think of them as bookends; it’s what lies in between that matters.
Dr David Ashton
14th November 2011