AN EDITOR ASKED ME not long ago if I might change the word “died” to “passed away” in something I’d written of a late and mutual friend. I respectfully said No, and here’s why.
Death has forever been cloaked in reverence and mystery, but it was only about ten years ago that I first caught myself groaning inwardly whenever I heard someone speak of a passing away or a crossing over. You know the euphemisms, of which there are many. They tempt even the most stalwart of us, and as you noted in the first sentence of this essay, the resistance is not total.
What got my attention was that few people even seemed interested in the effort. Most have taken up the opinion that it’s impolite to say of someone that she is dead, and that it came about as a result of dying. It’s rude, in other words, to notice death, the way that it’s rude to observe that someone is fat or has bad breath.
Well, not exactly the same way. Obesity and bad breath can be thought of as alterable conditions. The poor dead wretch, by contrast, has got himself into an incorrigible position, and through no fault of his. Thus, the euphemisms for death hold forth the idea that the departed are just that — somewhere else, a place that is always asserted to be better.
Now, it would be rude to ask the question begged by this manner of talking — “how do you know?” Rude, because the speaker doesn’t know and can’t possibly know, and furthermore has counted on his audience’s going along. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nodded pleasantly as someone talked about the departed and their better placements, but many it’s been. There’s a time and a place for good manners, after all.
As a general principle, however, a writer should resist euphemism — defined as a figure of speech which substitutes an unpleasant notion with a more favourable one. Dead is a perfectly fine Teutonic word, a plain and accurate term for a universal and certain fact. One syllable, four letters. Maybe that’s just the problem: the word is too candid, direct and forcefully blunt for delicate company.
The writer however should resist flattering his reader or otherwise indulging consensus opinions and habits that contradict the evidence provided by his senses and experience. Once you’ve absorbed the lesson that it won’t do to bruise the tender skin of a convention, you’ll begin to self-censor, in order to avoid causing offence. The result of this is always the same: bad writing.
Deeper down in this interdiction against death, could there be an unremarked superstition? Do people believe that the dead might well live on, if only we keep on speaking of them as having gone elsewhere? Euphemistic language is a genre of magical thinking, in which one supposes that words yield the reality, rather than the other way round. Saying makes it so. In the world of human opinions, it is the case that words may shape a subjective reality. The word for this business is propaganda, and the propagandist is someone whose job in cruder political environments is to convince you that war is peace, that slavery is freedom, and that your masters care nothing for their own interests and labour only on behalf of yours.
It isn’t pleasant to think of someone who was close to you as dead, any more than it is pleasant to state the plain truth that “military intervention” means limbless children and dead mothers in the street with their organs spilling out. Euphemism is employed to numb one’s own perceptions and conscience as often as it is to avoid offending others. It is much easier to defend the indefensible, or to make absurd and groundless claims, when the inconvenient bits of reality are elbowed out of our vision by roundabout language.
Anyone who writes about politics and war, if he is going to be anything other than a windbag or sadist, must first be brutally honest with himself concerning the material reality that lives and breathes behind and beyond his words. He must resist the persistent temptation to bend reality toward his prejudices and interests. This moral effort must necessarily begin, not in bold and big gestures, but in many small yet important decisions, such as to call death by its proper name.