On the Language of Death: Tiptoing through the Tulips

Back when I was a young journalism student, I handed in a story that said someone had “passed away.” My journalism professor nearly … well … killed me. “Pass away,” he bellowed, “is a weak euphemism used by those who let their discomfort with death get in the way of their reporting on it.”

“Not only that,” I remember him going on, “but ‘pass away’ suggests a transition to another place, a place that we, as journalists, are not able to confirm exists.”

Although I paraphrase, he and I really did have such an exchange. I think of it often these days because I have noticed that journalists — particularly broadcast journalists, and prominent ones at that — seem increasingly uncomfortable with saying that someone has died. Instead, they report that someone has passed away or, simply, has passed. I have even heard it used with reference to animals. Listen to the network news tonight, to NPR, or to your local news program. The epidemic use of passing away is killing off dying.

The other usage I see way too often is that someone died “unexpectedly.” Here comes that long-ago professor’s voice blasting to the surface of my memory: “While you can be certain that everyone will die, you have no way of knowing when a person will die — unless you are god. Thus, no death can be ‘expected’ and every death is ‘unexpected.’ To say so is to be redundant.”

What does this have to do with lawyers? Well, maybe I expect greater precision in language from journalists than from lawyers. But those in both professions are well advised to avoid euphemisms and call a spade a spade — even if the spade is in the hands of a gravedigger.