At a funeral I recently attended, the minister referred several times to the man having "died," but the obituary printed in the funeral bulletin distributed at the service referred to the man having "passed away." During the first 50 years or so of my life, the term I always heard or read was "died." But now, more often than not, I hear and read: so and so "passed" or "passed away." Several questions come to mind: Exactly when did the change in terminology occur, what was the reason for the change, is it helpful for the family of the deceased, and what are the theological implications of using "passed away" or "passed" instead of "died"? I decided to explore the matter.
I started by interviewing several funeral directors. They were all very helpful. I asked each one when the change took place. They all answered the same: they had never been asked that question before and had never given the matter any thought, but everyone agreed the standard for today among funeral homes is "passed away." Most of them said it had been that way for at least the last twenty-five years. One person pointed out that no one had made a rule or said from now on this is the way it will be--instead, it just seemed to evolve.
I spent time going through copies of funeral notices, obituaries, and news stories that I have saved about my family members. I found that the change from "died" to "passed away" began in the early 1970s. The change was gradual, and did not occur at the same time among all funeral homes or newspapers. But by the early 1980s "passed away" was the norm for all obituaries used by funeral homes, while obituaries and stories in newspapers still tended to use "died," although some use "passed away."
One funeral director pointed out that, except for news stories about people of importance, obituaries printed in newspapers are usually paid notices, and the cost of such notices is based on how much space the notices occupy. He suggested that since the cost of buying such notices can be on the expensive side, especially in large urban newspapers, some people use "died" to save space and, therefore, money, especially if an obituary is run more than once. I suspect that the tendency to use "died" instead of "passed away" in news stories stems from the fact that nearly all newspapers are always looking for legitimate and professional ways to conserve space.
Another thing that every funeral director I talked with mentioned was that the use of "passed away" seems more gentle, not so harsh, and less cold than "died." This was an indication of the genuine concern that all the funeral directors expressed for the healing and comfort of the families of the deceased. One funeral director suggested that the use of "passed away" instead of "died" is an indication of the times we live in--an era when people in general tend to prolong facing up to the hard facts of difficult situations as long as possible.
Other terms used occasionally are "deceased," "expired," "departed this life," and for children "went to live with God" or "went to live with the angels." "Passed" is heard primarily in conversations and is seldom used in the printed word except occasionally in novels.
But why did the minister leading the service say the person "died"? I noted to myself that we never say, "Jesus passed away on the cross" or that "Jesus passed to save us from our sins." Christian funeral services almost always include this famous saying of Jesus: "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die." (Gospel of John 11:25-26) In any of the modern versions of the Bible that use updated English, I have never read: "I am the resurrection and the life: although he passed, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never pass away."
What are the theological implications of using "died" or "passed away" or "passed"? I can only speak on behalf of the Christina Faith; I would not presume to be an authority on other faiths or religions.
Death is an important concept in the Christian Faith. Christians believe that the death of Christ and his subsequent resurrection has given us a way to eternal life. The New Testament clearly teaches that we must give up this life--we must experience a physical death--in order to achieve a spiritual life that is eternal. For the Christian, death is not something to be dreaded, but something that frees us from the suffering, trials, and tribulations of this life. We are taught that in the eternal life we will inherit new bodies--that we will take on a new form of existence.
The Christian wants to live in this life as long as possible, but he/she believes that death is the road to the final victory. By the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion (celebration of the Eucharist), we are united with Christ--in his death and in his resurrection. As a Christian clergyman I would find it difficult to use "passed away" or "passed." Neither of these implies a complete and absolute finality or death to this way of living. I believe that we must die in order to live, and I believe that is what the Holy Bible and the Christian Faith teaches.