Discussing death always has been a delicate process, and that’s reflected in the many different ways we say that someone has died — especially when it comes to our obituaries.
Obituaries are like a time capsule. Reading old obituaries shed light on how we would talk about death decades ago. They’re also a map, revealing to us the different ways in which different parts of the country tell the tale of someone’s life and death.
The Most Common Ways to Say We Died
Jillian Apel, a student researcher at the Duke Reporters’ Lab, wrote an article about her research documenting the different language of our obituaries. Here’s what she dug up when exploring the most commonly used terms.
She divided them into three broad categories: polite euphemisms, transcendent experiences, and the more to the story.
Polite euphemisms are the nice ways to talk about death and avoid any mention of the d-word at all. It includes phrases like “passed away” or “passed peacefully.”
Transcendent experiences involve using religious or spiritual terms to define death. Common phrases include “went home to be with Jesus,” “entered into eternal rest,” or “departed this earthly life.”
The more to the story style-obituaries are like the polite euphemisms category in that they avoid explaining how someone died — especially when it comes to a sensitive topic like overdose or suicide. The common phrases include things like “died suddenly,” or “passed unexpectedly.”
How We Said We Died Hundreds of Years Ago
The language of obituaries also has changed over time. This reflects not only our attitudes toward death but also the different ways people commonly passed away.
The blog Vast Public Indifference ran a series called “101 Ways to Say Died.” They went back and looked at early American epitaphs dating from the pre-1850s. Here are some of the unique phrases found:
- “Slain by enemy”
- “Perished in a storm”
- “Breathed her soul away into her Savior’s arms”
- “Fell asleep in the cradle of death”
- “Was removed by dysentery”
- “Changed a fleeting world for an immortal rest”
The Colorful Idioms of Death
Of course, there’s no right or wrong way to write about death in an obituary. Families are free to describe their loved one in any way that fittingly captures the personality and story of the deceased. And sometimes it ends in colorful descriptions. Here are a few:
- “Bought a one-way ticket”
- “Gave up the Ghost”
- “At their journey’s end”
- “Angels carried him/her away”
- “Join the great majority”
- “On the last train to glory”
- “No longer counted in the census”
What are the different ways you’ve seen obituaries discuss death? Share with us in the comments below!