‘Passed away’ sneaking into newspaper lexicon


“D” is for dead, which is what you are when your heart stops beating. No sugarcoating can change that fact.

I couldn’t get past this sports headline in the June 25 Billings Gazette: “Three-time NFR qualifier Bill Parker passes at 62.

I didn’t know Bill Parker and mean him no disrespect. But “passes”?

A quarterback passes. A point guard passes. Even an offensive lineman with a C-minus average passes. But a rodeo roper?

Time was, newspapers had strict rules governing what happens when you stop breathing. You don’t pass, pass away, go to be with Jesus or join the heavenly choir. You just die.

Funeral homes would regularly send us obituaries about people who had passed away, but by the time the news hit the paper, those people had all died. I suppose the change started when newspapers quit running obituaries as news and started running them as paid advertising.

Gradually, “passed away” made it into paid obits, then into TV news, then into the editorial columns of newspapers themselves, the traditional guardians of direct speech. Even my English students, writing about characters in Edgar Allan Poe stories, seek to avoid the harsh reality of mortality by saying that somebody passed away.

In the first place, I tell them, these aren’t even real people. In the second place, even if they were, they would have dead for at least 175 years. Too soon?

Newspapers have made some politically correct changes that I understand. For years, papers insisted on referring to people who publicly opposed abortion as anti-abortion activists. Pro-life forces complained that this showed bias, especially since papers called the other side pro-choice.

From a journalistic standpoint, this made perfect sense. You can believe that abortion is a mortal sin that will doom your soul to eternal hell and still think that abortion decisions should be made by women and their doctors, not by the government. So a pro-abortion label wouldn’t work.

But the anti-abortion label worked perfectly, especially since being pro-life didn’t necessarily say anything about one’s position on capital punishment, military interventions or other matters in which lives are at stake. But editors grew weary of fighting that battle and eventually surrendered.

A similar surrender now seems to be taking place with respect to “passes” and “passes away.” I don’t understand why. Not only are those vague and euphemistic terms, they say precious little about one of the biggest events in any life. Not only that, but even euphemisms can cut the wrong way, as I learned when I was about 10 years old and told my mother that some of her friends and family had “kicked the bucket.”

Once at the Outpost, someone who placed an obituary called to ask how the death would be handled in the paper. The deceased’s religion didn’t believe that people die, the caller said, but that they move into some sort of other sacred state that I couldn’t quite grasp.

My response was more polite than what I thought, which was that we’re all free to think what we wish about what happens when the heart stops beating, but there are certain physical signs associated with the end of life that all of us recognize as a single thing: death.

Personally, I would prefer an even more callous approach, such as that of my old Gazette colleagues who would refer to the short, unpaid obituaries in the paper as “pine boxes.”

Once I sat on a panel discussion in Helena with Andy Smetanka, then a writer for the Missoula Independent. Someone in the audience asked about paid obituaries, and Smetanka replied that those obits were so predictable and politically correct that people who submitted them might as well be checking off boxes on a list.

“Except,” I said, “that nobody ever checks the box that says ‘rotting in Hell.’”

Inside, I was laughing loud enough to raise the dead.

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