Attending a recent Christian funeral, I found myself uneasy that neither during the sermon nor the reception were the words “death,” “dead,” or “died” used. Instead, the terms spoken by attendees and clergy alike were “passed” and “passed away.” Disconcertingly, they were exclusively employed, prompting me to wonder if a seismic shift in social conceptions of death had occurred.
A purposeful reading of obituaries over the next several weeks confirmed my antidotal suspicion. The newspapers evidenced a conspicuous absence of the terms “death” and “died” with ample usage of “passed” and “passed away.” A little more research found that as recently as the 1970’s “death” and “died” were nearly universal. With the advent of the 1990’s, however, the Church of Scientology’s distribution of tens of millions of copies of Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (a book that advanced the gnostic notions left by Christian Science founder, Mary Eddy Baker) along with the rise in fascination over Eastern religions signaled a transference of terminology for death and, along with it, the meaning and significance of what happens when we die. Death had become sanitized and sentimentalized. In the process, one notes an abandonment of the theological implications of not only death in exchange for sentimental conceptions, but also the severing of a connection between Christ’s saving death and our own physical death. Faithful preachers should remain steadfast in the biblical categories and terminology and preach the reality of death with all its associated hamartiological and soteriological implications.
Most obituaries are written by family or friends of the deceased. Predictably, the harsh reality of death with all its ugliness, pain, and finality succumbs to minimalization to paint in soft colors the life and living memory of the dead. “Passed away” is favored as a gentler euphemism and derives from the notion that it is comforting to think of the person as not having died and ceased to exist (as far as terrestrial living is concerned) but to have “passed on” or “passed away” to a better place. Typically, this is the place of the deceased’s choosing which is full of the identity-associating activities and mementos of their earthly life.
To be sure, the dismissal of Christianity from the public square and the loss of biblical categories and terminology from the educational process have contributed to the displacement of what was once a tacit recognition of death as a result of sin and Christ conquering death through His own death (Acts 2:23-24; 1 Corinthians 15). In Scripture, death means separation: A rending of the body and spirit, which together comprise the soul of a human being (Genesis 2:7). Death, then, is the ultimate dehumanizing event, with the resurrection being the ultimate rehumanizing event. But when these categories give way to secular humanism and a materialist worldview (neither of which offer comfort at death), then the feeling that death is not right yields to sentimentalism, extending even to animals. The unpleasant language of death finds a substitute for animals who, thanks to materialism, have ascended the scale of being and are now considered coequal with humanity. So, while humans “pass away,” sentimentalism describes the euthanizing of pets as being “put to sleep” and other animal deaths as “passing on.” Either way, the transition comes-off sounding lightsome and satisfying.
Death is the ultimate dehumanizing event, with the resurrection being the ultimate rehumanizing event.
But for all of the efforts of scientism, materialism, and physicalism to reduce human composition to the physics of matter, the ubiquitous use of “passed away” betrays a spiritual longing and subtle recognition that somehow, in some way, persons persist after death. Additionally, be it in regular discourse or the posting of obituaries, the inclination to supplant the cold nomenclature of “death,” “died,” and “dead” with ambiguous and palatable terms — “passed” and “passed away” — indicates that just under the surface we all sense the terribleness of death. This cultural “haunting,” as Charles Taylor might call it, should be exploited by preachers when people assemble for a funeral or interment.
I suspect there is something else at play here, something that coincides with cultural shifts stretching back to the 1980’s, namely political correctness. To say that one’s beloved family member or friend is dead, that death overtook them, strikes an offensive note (how much more so in the politically-charge environment of COVID 19 where the death-toll receives continuous updating on news outlets). Death is offensive. It bespeaks of defeat, an inglorious loss. On the other hand, for someone to have “passed away” can mean whatever endearing sentiment they would like to conjure. Preachers must not succumb to such temptations, which is why eulogizing should never take place during the funeral rite, much less the sermon.
Such amorphous, yet affable terminology as “passed away” lends itself to domestication, rending death from the hands of God and setting it in those of humanity. In this way, “passed away” fails to embrace death for what it is (an enemy and perversion within the created order that needs to be conquered by Christ lest we perish – 1 Corinthians 15:25-26) and instead, undergoes rehabilitation. First, the term is rehabilitated by separating it from Scripture. Then, its meaning is rehabilitated by removing the stigma of judgment and penalty for sin. Finally, the significance of death is altered by stripping it of the cosmic impact of Adam and Christ’s respective deaths and the enduring consequences of being redeemed or not.
Death has lost its sting in contemporary discourse. This is not because of the implications of Christ’s propitiation and resurrection, but because “passed away” allows death to be molded to the whims of each subject. “Passed away” signals a release, a pleasant transition into any given individual’s ethereal paradise. Especially where cremation predominates, the dead, “Live in our hearts,” or become one with their favorite fishing hole or they become a song, an angel, or whatever. Gone is any notion that death signals a curse upon humanity and impending judgment (Hebrews 9:27). It does not have to be overcome by a champion. Far from it. “Passing away,” though enigmatic, is a welcome transition, akin to the momentary discomforts immediately prior to passing through Willie Wonka’s cramped doorway into the splendors of the Chocolate Room. But all of this is deceit. We do not “pass away,” we die. When we die, we are dead. The antidote to death is not Jesus “passing away” on the cross but suffering the inglorious atrocity of death to achieve the death of death. “Passing away” and all such euphemisms present a soft pillow for what otherwise were moments for preaching which jolted us from the mundane of life to mentally and emotionally grapple with the existential reality that death is coming upon us all like an unstoppable freight train and to the further consideration of who can save us from death, a death each of us very much deserves. Preachers must preserve biblical language and eschew theology-sapping euphemisms.
The antidote to death is not Jesus “passing away” on the cross but suffering the inglorious atrocity of death to achieve the death of death.
How did such vacuous euphemisms slip into Church usage?
Middle English literature presents an interesting history of “passed away” and “passed.” Up to the turn of the fifteenth century, these terms readily connoted movement, be it spatial or temporal. With the limited distribution of the Lay Folks Mass Book (c. 1400), the Oxford English Dictionary notes the earliest known use of these euphemisms for death: “God lord graunt rest and pese… to Christian soules passed away” (MS. B, 112). The verbiage signifies “passing” from this world to the next; although the wider context intimates a movement of time into a transitionary period, like that of this world “passing away” or giving-way to the world to come.
Throughout the Reformation period, when martyrdom, war, or plague might at any moment snatch away one’s life, “death” was universally employed and at the forefront of the minds of those engaged in the struggle for the Gospel of God’s grace. “Passing” finds only an occasional appearance in literature and with little certainty it was used as a synonym for death. The ever-present reality of death ensured an exacting theology to deal with it.
Instead, the gateway to the social acceptance of “passing” and “passed away” seems to be the widely distributed 1611 King James Version (KJV). It was within its pages the phrase appears in 2 Chronicles 21:20, although this poor translation has been rightly corrected in more recent translations to “departed.” Similarly, Psalm 37:36 says: “Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found.” However, this too is an unfavorable translation (better: “And I passed by…”) that does not immediately reference death with this phrase, but does so with the following commentary, “…he was not.” The next reference comes in Psalm 90:9: “For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.” The context here requires we understand the idea that our days are spent under divine judgment. A better translation here as well reads, “…all our days are declining.”
In the New Testament, none of the Gospels use the phrase “passed away,” but the KJV and translations which follow this version four times posit the euphemism in 2 Corinthians 5:17, 1 John 3:14, Revelation 21:1, and 21:4. The latter two references unmistakably pertain to the passage of time, not human death. It is really with a misappropriation of the 2 Corinthians 5:17 and 1 John 3:14 texts that “passed away” links to “death” and, in the twenty-first century’s sentimental purging of the theologically-loaded Θάνατος, that “passed away” and “passed” become commonplace. Still, the verbiage was there for all to read and associate with death. So, “passed away” leached into the populace.
Commenting on the implications of Christ’s victorious death and resurrection for the believer, Saint Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The immediate context does have a reference to baptism. Therefore, it incorporates the Apostle’s teaching from Romans 6:1-11 with its references to “death,” “died,” and “dead” (e.g., verses 2, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11). However, the only physical death referenced in Romans 6 pertains to Christ’s atonement/crucifixion. The implication of Jesus’s physical death for the baptized means the old things of the unregenerate life (namely, wrongheaded expectations of a Jewish kingdom and other aberrant eschatologies, pagan philosophies, worldly standards, and things of the flesh) “passed away” or are considered “dead” from the moment one becomes united to Christ. Paul invokes a fulfillment of Isaiah 43:18-19 with the implication for the baptized that our understanding, perception, and experience of things has moved into the past; it is not of the present reality of things. The same intent applies to 1 John 3:14. Physical death for the baptized is not in view. Rather, the spiritual reckoning of our old nature is because from Christ’s physical death comes regenerating life and, after our physical death and on the Last Day, resurrection life. The close association of baptismal “death” with the chronological “passing away” of our old nature with its corresponding thought-processes, sadly, facilitated a collapsing of distinct meanings into one. “Passed” and “passed away” had a modicum of legitimacy, it seemed, from Scripture.
Still, even with this gateway cracked open, Christian communities stoutly resisted substituting “passed away” for “death.” Biblical literacy scarcely permitted it and the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion gave no quarter.
Really, it was not until Mary Eddy Baker began to employ terms that consciously avoided biblical teaching about Jesus’s atoning death (recalling how none of the Gospels use “passed away” in 19th-century English translations) and the cure for human death, both spiritual and physical. Instead of biblical terminology, she promoted a doctrine of “radical reliance,” the belief that only the “Divine Mind” accessible within persons can cure body and spirit. Her death-avoiding terminology advanced in the best-selling writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. For adherents of Scientology, the body is de-emphasized in good-old gnostic fashion. When the “body ceases to work,” then one “passes away” and the individual’s “thetan” is released from its enfleshed condition. In life, the goal of Scientology is to achieve a “clear” state, free from physical pain and painful emotions; indeed, free of the body. With tens of millions of copies sold and discussed on television and in print, the Dianetics craze of the 1980’s (aided by a pop-interest in Buddhism) helped to put gnostic notions of “passed” and “passed away” into common parlance. These terms formed and informed post-Christian culture’s perception of death and, in short order, the rehabilitation of death was absorbed by the Church of the past thirty years.
So, church observances of death became altered outside the Church and inside the Church. Fading into distance memory is the Requiem Mass, the Rite of Christian Burial, with accompanying churchyards and interments. In their place we find the celebration of life, cremation, and the recycling of the body (eco burials). In these and other ways, even Christian funerals, once optimal occasions for heralding the Law and the Gospel without contest and with customary expectation from attendees to hear such, have yielded to post-conservative iconoclastic impulses and the spirit of the times, a spirit that cannot say, “No,” to anything for fear of offending.
But preachers of the truth must speak the words of Scripture, for in them and by them we say what is most certain and true. Death does not lie, but culture has been taught lies about death. Faithful preachers must address cultural reticence to confront the truth about death. Also, amidst a global pandemic when the impoliteness of death has taken the front page, preachers need to take advantage of the moment to proclaim death’s relation to sin, the Law, and Christ’s atoning sacrifice. There are tools to help as well. Consider the preface to the Rites for Christian Burial in the Lutheran Service Book: Agenda that declares:
“Death is a consequence of the fall into sin (Genesis 3:19; Romans 5:12). The coming of life incarnate into our world of death signals the death of death and the ultimate victory of life. Jesus meets death and grief head-on (Luke 7:11-17; Mark 5:35-43; John 11:1-44) and transforms it by His own death, burial, and resurrection giving us life.”
It continues by providing content for preaching any one of the aforementioned texts:
“In Holy Baptism we are immersed in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-11). Luther says that one’s burial and resurrection from the dead are the fulfillment of one’s baptism: “This journey (from this life to the life beyond) begins in Baptism. And as long as there is faith, man continues on this course until he completes it through death” (Luther’s Works 24:42). The burial rites themselves are a kind of journey that begins at the deathbed, leads to the funeral home and the church, and finally to the cemetery. They follow the believer as he departs this world with Christ through death to life.”
Note Jesus did not “expire” on Golgotha like spoiled milk, nor did he conquer “passed away.” He died on the cross to defeat death and usher in life. Here we find the truth of Scripture, such that it calls a thing what it is and, therefore, brings to the forefront the consequences of sin but also the glorious victory of Christ over sin, death, and Hell.
Note Jesus did not “expire” on Golgotha like spoiled milk, nor did he conquer “passed away.” He died on the cross to defeat death and usher in life.
There is also a grammatical consideration that relates to the theology of the cross. In addition to being euphemisms, “pass” and “passed away” are verbs/phrasal verbs, implying action on the part of the subject. For example, take the phrase, “Jim passed away.” The verbal association indicates that Jim is the active agent. He is the “doer.” But Scripture clearly says God appoints the day of each person’s death (Genesis 3:19; Job 7:1; 14:5; 21:21; Psalm 31:15; 139:16; Ecclesiastes 3:2; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27). Moreover, death itself is a judgment God has levied on humanity for treason. Likewise, the remedy must be from God. He must be active in Christ to defeat death on Golgotha and deliver to us the victory. Preachers must make immediately connection with the deceased by referencing the Lord’s application of His saving benefits through Baptism.
Preaching death as “death” and the dead as “dead” maintains the universality of the consequences of sin, allowing little wiggle room for domestication. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). What results in “passed away,” however, goes unaddressed in Christianity. “Passed away” is not really a problem necessitating a solution. Death, on the other hand, is a thief, a murderer, and a miserable tyrant which needs to be crushed by the dominion of the world’s rightful king, Jesus Christ, the One who is, “…the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). A change in nomenclature from “death” to “passed away” does not alter the objective reality: Death is an enemy. No bout of polite terminology can change this fact, it only obscures it or hides it (just like the way we have sanitized the civic spaces of churchyards).
Preachers should be mindful that what they preach about death may impact the grieving process for surviving family members. The use of biblical terminology sustains the transmission of the meaning and significance of salvation. Conflating biblical with non-biblical terminology fosters confusion or at least hampers the immediate association between the salvific accomplishments of Christ and their friend or family member who died.