The death of “died”
Do people die anymore? I mean, I know our life expectancy is on the rise, but surely the human species has not achieved immortality.
Giving death a pass
Yet one can’t help but wonder, based on the everyday parlance both on the street and in the broadcast, and sometimes print, media apropos of the subject of death. How often do you hear someone say so-and-so “died”? Hardly ever. It’s almost a dead word. Newspapers still use “die,” “died,” “dead” and “death,” but the terminology is in need of resuscitation even in the Fourth Estate. Okay, maybe “death” is still in vogue. But more and more, the other “D” words are shunned like the plague. They’re being replaced by “passed,” “pass away,” “passed away,” “passes away” and “passing away.”
In days of yore, a cardinal rule in newspaper reporting held that no one ever “passed away.” The person “died.” Euphemisms such as “passed away” had no place in a newspaper except in the paid obituaries. They were verboten, and woe unto the beginning reporter who handed in copy with that phrase or its derivations. “He died, dammit,” the city editor likely growled. However, any reporter who had, well, passed an introductory course in journalism school was well aware of the taboo.
A passing fancy
That prohibition is passing – er, dying. In my local paper, the Palm Beach Post, two examples have occurred in less than three months. Both foibles were committed by veteran staffers. The first was on the death of a prominent agricultural businessman: The man “passed away in his sleep … .” The second, just Tuesday (June 17, 2014) popped up in the cutlines for a feature story involving the horsey set: “… gave to her after their father passed away.”
Instances such as those two are uncommon in newspapers. In the broadcast media, however, “passed away” and the various tenses of the verb are endemic.
Saying the person “passed away” does not alter the reality that said person is dead, doesn’t soften its impact, and doesn’t mitigate the fear of death. It’s probably not as euphemistic as John Cleese was in the famous dead parrot sketch of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which Cleese’s character insists the bird “is no more” and “has ceased to be”; and, “bereft of life, it rests in peace.” But Cleese was emphasizing the parrot’s expiration. The “passed away” pretenders are diminishing their subjects’ deadness.
No passing ahead?
Oh well, perhaps this reticence in dealing with death will one day … uh, pass.