Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (NRSV) – June 13, 2014)
I was listening to the radio yesterday. A golf club president was being interviewed about a professional golfer who had been killed in an air craft incident. I don’t golf or follow the game, so I have no idea who was being profiled, and that’s not relevant here. What is relevant is that the person being interviewed used the euphemism “he passed” to reference the golfer’s death.
This is a usage of the verb “to pass” that has become very prevalent in recent years. I don’t recall hearing it before the 1990s. “Passed away,” yes. Simple “passed,” no. And I find it interesting, but also disturbing and objectionable. Using “he passed” in this way is symptomatic of the modern denial of the reality of death. People don’t “pass.” They die! Unless killed by disease, accident, or misfortune, they grow old and die. And although our faith teaches us that “for [God’s] faithful people . . . life is changed, not ended,” it also acknowledged that “our mortal bodies will lie in death.” (Preface for a Eucharist in Commemoration of the Dead, BCP 1979, page 381) Modern culture, however, seems not to want to admit this, the truth and physical reality of death: according to contemporary society, human beings don’t die – they “pass.”
The refusal to face death was parodied by Monty Python’s Flying Circus in what has come to be know as The Pet Shop Sketch or The Dead Parrot Sketch in which John Cleese tries to return a deceased bird to a pet store run by Michael Palin, who denies that the bird is dead. When Palin tries to argue that the parrot is “pining,” an exasperated Cleese runs through several euphemisms for death:
‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!!He’s f*ckin’ snuffed it!….. THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!
Qoheleth demonstrates the difference between poetry and euphemism in this marvelous metaphoric description of old age and decline. This is a man who knows the decline of age, who has seen death up close. Rather than euphemize it and sanitize it and avoid it, he confronts it, describes it, embraces it, almost caresses it in the same way one would a spouse, a lover, an old friend. “The strong men are bent . . . the daughters of song are brought low . . . the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails . . . the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken.” No “passing” here; this language faces the reality of death.
When I read this passage, I see in my mind’s eye a village in decline; in truth, I see the village portrayed in the Irish television (RTE) movie version of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1947 Irish-language play Cré na Cille (“Graveyard Clay”). The village, like the people in it, is old and tired; once vibrant life is slowed and winding down. Eventually, it will die as many of its residents have died. Like them, it is honestly facing (perhaps even looking forward to) its demise. (The play is narrated by the conversations of the dead beneath the soil of the cemetery. It’s a very imaginative piece of stagecraft and I do wish someone with an excellent understanding of Irish would translate it into English!)
Contemporary society seems to have lost the willingness to honestly face decline and death, to look forward to old age, to anticipate without dread the time when “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” Instead of caring for our elderly at home, we warehouse old folks in nursing homes. When they die, we probably aren’t even there. Their bodies are shrouded and taken out a side door so the other nursing home residents can’t see what is happening. We pay “funeral home” employees to handle the washing of dead bodies and their preparation for burial, a task that used to be done by family members. We have sanitized and euphemized death into invisibility.
And, having done so, I wonder if that is why it is so easy for us as a country to send young soldiers into war. I wonder if that is why we glorify guns and violent games, and do practically nothing to prevent the school, work place, and church shootings which plague us. By avoiding the reality of death, have we made death a more present part of our reality?
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.