The Verbiage of Death: Is "Died" Passing Away?

It's widely assumed we're a less religious nation than we used to be. Polls say we attend church less. The frequency with which people say grace at meals is way down. And the Sunday hush seems to be a thing of the past. Taboos about sabbath-day shopping, movies, or sporting events seem to have fallen away. We may even live to see Sunday wine sales.

There's one respect in which we're far more overtly religious than any of our ancestors were. You can see it on the obituary pages. Never before in history have newspapers so frequently published specific details about an individual's afterlife. The year 2013 represents the all-time high for that sort of thing.

Have a look. On the obit pages, the predicate "went to be with Jesus," or some variation thereof, has become almost boilerplate, pretty much the form-letter sort of an East Tennessee obituary. Sometimes more than half the obituaries listed on the ever-larger obituary pages use some version of that assumption.

I'm sure newcomers notice that and say, "Well, of course. It's the Bible Belt."

But was it always like that? I'd done a good deal of obituary research over the years. I even wrote a book about local graveyards, for which I looked up hundreds of obits over the centuries. I didn't recall much speculation. So I went back and spot-checked obituary columns in both The Knoxville Journal and the News Sentinel, several examples from each decade going back more than a century.

That's a right peculiar thing to do, of course. But I was curious. I wanted to see when it started.

It's just possible that the phrase "went to be with Jesus," as expressed on an obituary page, may be newer than cellphones. It looks like mainly a 21st-century thing.

Around 150 years ago, reporters sometimes even suggested that resurrection seemed unlikely. In a description of the death of Capt. P.M. McClung, a Confederate soldier from a prominent family killed in Col. William Sanders' 1863 raid, the pro-Confederate Knoxville Register reported, "In his narrow house, six feet beneath the world, he sleeps the sleep that knows no waking."

Today, that phrasing might prompt a lawsuit.

Obituaries have fluctuated a great deal over the generations. A century ago, there wasn't an obit page, as such. If you were famous or your demise was peculiar, a reporter would write something about your death. If not, not.

Paid family-submitted obituaries don't appear very obviously until the 20th century, originally just about once a week. On other days, "Deaths," headlined as such, might be listed, usually just names, addresses, ages.

As late as the 1970s, the entire obituary section was often just a quarter page. Items were short, print was tiny, and photos were unusual. Today it's not unusual for the News Sentinel to run three full pages of obituaries.

And the words we use to describe death have changed.

From the beginning of Tennessee journalism in 1791 until about World War II—about 150 years—articles used one word to describe a life ending. They said "died."

Good reporters would never make an assumption about one's afterlife without corroborating evidence. Both news stories and paid obituaries used that neutral verb.

But maybe, during World War II, we got tired of saying the word died. We did have to use it a lot in those days.

After that war, in the paid obits, you start to see a new term creeping in around the edges: "passed away." The phrase sounds more religious than "died," suggesting a graceful emigration more than an ending.

I grew up with the impression the term was denomination-specific. A third-grader when my great-grandmother died in 1966, I got curious about the vocabulary of death. I remember asking a dinner table full of graying Presbyterians what "pass away" meant. One said, "It's what Baptists say when someone dies."

But in later years, some people not necessarily religious have corrected my reckless use of the word "died." "Pass away," they said, was more polite. I had a vague notion it had to do with a line, "pass away from this vale of tears," so often used in a religious context that I assumed was in the Bible somewhere. I was wrong. That phrase may derive from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, called "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," published in 1817.

"Spirit of Beauty ...

Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,

This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?"

The term "pass away," without the vale, is older, and is indeed in the Bible—but not in reference to an individual human's death. Jesus is quoted, "heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." But in the Bible, individuals don't pass away. Sometimes they "give up the ghost"; more often they just die. Even in the floral King James version, the word "died" refers to the fate of lots of Biblical heroes, from Abraham to Jesus.

It wasn't until the TV age that "pass away" became America's favorite way to describe the end of life. I don't know why. But now the word "died" is in a minority of obits. Some days it doesn't appear at all.

In my spot-checking, I found a few smaller trends. As perhaps the third most popular obituary verb, mainly in the 1960s and '70s, the term "expired" had a shelf life of maybe 20 years. It would be surprising to see that today.

The term "departed this life," perhaps more religious than "passed away," because it does seem to imply another life, began showing up occasionally in the 1980s.

It was not until about 20 years ago, in the middle 1990s, that Knoxville obituaries started making specific assumptions about the afterlife of the deceased. Just then we started seeing the phrase "went to be with the Lord," or "entered into eternal rest" or, simply, "went to Heaven."

My hunch was that it was new. I hadn't guessed it was quite that new.