The Language of Death and Dying

Regular readers will know that I tend to be fairly straightforward about death and dying. ‘Brutally blunt’ was the term used by someone blessed with greater sensitivity, or perhaps a richer vocabulary, than I. The truth is, I have watched at the bedsides of too many people in their last hours to be squeamish about the process of dying, and my own illness forces me to contemplate my own death with as much regularity as the precepts of the Rule could desire. (As an aside, Benedict refers to death and judgement several times and exhorts the monk to keep death daily before his eyes, RB 4.47). Death, then, is no stranger; and though I do not think I would ever follow St Francis in calling it ‘Sister Death,’ I do not care for the various euphemisms we use to try to rob the word of its power. When I die, I shall die: I shall not ‘pass’ or ‘pass away’. Still less shall I ‘fall asleep’ or ‘lose my battle with cancer’. Does it matter? I think it does.

Traditionally, Christianity has always seen death as an entrance into the fullness of life. It is as much a part of life as being born, and just as precious. To be with someone in their last hours is a great privilege. Yes, it’s nice if the process of dying is attended with clean sheets, quietness and an absence of struggle, but often it isn’t. It can be messy, painful and as far removed from the idealised version as it is possible to be; but the moment when God comes to claim his own, when sin and failure fall away and the true beauty of the soul is glimpsed, is always a moment of sheer wonder. The power of God is active in a way we rarely advert to at other times, so we have no need to dress death up with circumlocutions as though it were somehow an affront to our humanity. It is the realisation of our humanity, the completion of our humanity.

Today, many will be recalling the anniversaries of those who have died. For those of us who lived through them, the events of 9/11 seem unforgettable, but memories fade, and the personal connections dissolve. I like the fact that Catholicism has never seen any need to distinguish between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the monastery, for example, every Hour of the Divine Office, every meal we eat, ends with a prayer for the souls of the faithful departed. We pray for ALL the faithful departed, not just those known to us. By that simple remembrance, we unite with those who have died, of course, but also with those who grieve and with those who have no words to form a prayer; and just as the words we sing or the food we eat are, so to say, a fleshly reality, so death itself becomes not an absence of life but truly part of it.

The language of death and dying is beautiful in its honesty and its starkness. Let us honour it and pray that we ourselves will meet death with courage and truthfulness when it comes. In the meantime, let us not shy away from it or try to pretend death doesn’t exist. It does, and we should rejoice in that fact — because where Christ has gone before, we hope to follow.


25 thoughts on “The Language of Death and Dying”

  1. I agree about being straightforward about death although Saint Paul refers to “those who have fallen asleep” so I guess it is legitimate to use it. “Called home” is another expression we use in our church which is a comforting thought for the grieving. Because “here” is what I know, I find it hard to grasp that “there” will be so much better. Better than we could ever imagine.

    • Those who know me will understand the little joke behind my dislike of ‘falling asleep’ and ‘losing my battle with cancer’, but you are perfectly right about the saints who have fallen asleep in love, etc. We all have something to look forward to, though I DO wonder sometimes about the period of purification we call Purgatory. As for Hell, I hope none of us has to experience that!

  2. You are absolutely right about the very moment of death. My darling husband suffered from a brain tumour for 5 years before dying at home quietly and peacefully. I nursed him for the final months with help from a neighbour and district nurses. When he died they were here with a doctor. The deep silence expressed the sense of being aware of the power of God in the room. He died immediately after I finished praying the Lord’s Prayer, holding my hand and looking straight at me. That moment is always with me and gives me huge comfort. He will fetch me when it’s my turn, I have no fear of death now.

  3. Scouts always use a circle with a central dot or stone in the middle as ‘Gone Home’, and this symbol is always used for Scout death notices. Of course the church always refers to God having prepared a home for us. I quite like the term ‘died in his or her sleep’ if that is what happened, but passed over or any other alternatives seem as if it is sanitising death. However, I do think that it is very important to talk to those family members who are left, and to talk about those who have died by name.

  4. I feel that you have got it right. I find the language often used when someone had died to be a little patronizing and perhaps a softening of the stark fact that a life is ended.

    I can remember attending a secular funeral for someone who I had know to be a Christian, but whose family chose to use a secular celebrant. I was bemused by quotes such as “he is now in the stars, one of those bright stars shining on you” and “he will be there with his favorite Dog” walking around green fields”.

    This is supposed to give hope, ignoring the coffin waiting to be trundled behind the curtain for cremation and reduction to ashes. No hope of new life in Christ, no hope of the promises in Revelation, no hope for a grieving family or friends.

    To add insult to injury, the celebrant than said “For those who pray – we’ll have a moment of silence than Recite the Lord’s Prayer”. A complete and utter fudge.

    The partner of the deceased, who’d be denied any input to the proceedings as “You’re not married to our father” was desolate. And wasn’t even invited to the ‘wake’ following the funeral. We took her away with several other disgusted relatives to a local hotel and had a meal together to talk and share memories of the one who died.

    I have nothing against those funeral celebrants, but their use of phrases that are utterly inappropriate and choices of popular music, which don’t represent the person whose death we are seeking to commemorate made me very sad.

    He was a much loved Uncle, born and raised a Catholic. Who was a veteran and POW in WW2, who kept a Catholic Prayerbook given to him during his POW days, with him his whole life, annotated and well read and used in his own handwriting. He was Christian to the core and a Catholic, who had seen and done things in war that he continually remembered and prayed about for forgiveness – yet his immediate family had ignored that private aspect of his life, despite what they were told by his partner and by us.

    I find it sad that he was sent to his new life in such a manner.

  5. I have never liked the word death because it speaks to me of a permanent end when in fact we are passing to eternity. I am something of a poet so I tend to say:
    ‘So as each day must end in night,
    So must this life transform its flight.’
    I too have sat a deathbed and I agree accompanying someone through their final days is a privilege.

  6. Your last line sums up my hope, and the cure of my fear…..Christ has gone there before us. God’s blessing on all who are in their last days/moments right now – may they know his love and grace in those precious moments. X

  7. Totally agree with all you wrote having spent many hours with the dying. A blessing often found. If I have my way my headstone will read “I’m not here, I am with God”

  8. I find your blog today particularly poignant because of where I am and what I am doing at the moment. I am currently in Berlin learning a lesson on how to die from the sister of my wife, Eva Maria Vogel.

    Almost three years ago Eva Maria had surgery for bowel cancer. I came to Berlin in a state of anxiety and foreboding when the doctor told me she had about three months to live. All my anxiety was relieved when Eva Maria told me quietly and with no fear of death, that she was ready and willing to die when God was ready to take her. Since then I enjoyed seventeen days on holiday with her in North Cyprus in September 2017. That was the last time she was able to travel.

    Now, after much difficulty in getting a bed, she is in a home and suffering silently. While she says to me that she hopes God will take her soon, she does not complain at all although she is obviously in pain and much discomfort. The suffering that can accompany dying is ugly! The ugliest death was surely that of Jesus on the cross — never portrayed truthfully on the sanitised crucifixes so prevalent today.
    Death comes as a soothing balm, and a loving embrace. I witnessed the same thing forty years ago with my mother. These dying women have caused me to question the strength of my own faith. Faith in God and the life hereafter does smooth the passage from life to death.

    And for good measure you will never convince me that purgatory exists. There are only different levels of appreciation of the beatific vision. Whether one can move up the levels to improve that appreciation after death is something I shall have to wait to find out for myself.

    May God bless you Dame Catherine your blogs are a great inspiration.

  9. I always refer to my Barbara’s death as departing this world. We all live in the hope of going to Heaven and being reunited there with our loved family and friends.

  10. A beautiful reflection which was just what I needed to read today. I too am of the ‘call a spade a spade’ mentality. Your second paragraph in particular moves me greatly, and articulates feelings which I struggle to express. As always, thank you.

  11. I sent part of your lovely blog to a recently bereaved friend in Australia. Her sister has died. I thought she would find it comforting and so she did. So thank you Sister.

    • It’s quite often used by Western Christians, too, but my personal objection to the phrase is a little joke which those who know me will understand: for most of my life I’ve been blessed with boundless, unsleeping energy. Not so much now, alas.

  12. Thank you Dame Catherine.wise and helpful words.
    Like UKViewer above, I had a real battle over my mother’s funeral. My brother being a very aggressive atheist. Eventually we compromised. No church funeral, but I was able to ask a friend to preside at the Crem, which was a blessing.
    Interestingly, my oh so rational brother and agnostic father could not bring to see my mother after she died, despite my telling them how peaceful she looked. For me, spending time with her then, having not been with her when she died (my brother sent me a text message “mum died at 12:14) was a much needed opportunity to offer prayers for her and my family, and to reassure myself she was at peace, which she was.
    Bless you for your thoughtful and wise words

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