On Dying And Passing Away

There was a time when not every College football game was televised. So it was exciting when a Nebraska Cornhusker football game was to be on TV and it was even better when was on ABC, since that meant that the announcer would likely be Keith Jackson. It seemed to most of us that the national media did not much care for Nebraska football, that, for whatever reason, they seemed biased against the Huskers but no so Keith Jackson. He clearly loved sports (he called a wide variety of contests) and he seemed to have genuine affection for the history and traditions associated with Nebraska football. He treated us fairly. If we could not listen to an actual Cornhusker call a Nebraska game (e.g., the redoubtable Lyle Bremser) then Keith “Whoa Nellie” Jackson was the next best thing.

Jackson died yesterday aged 89. You can read elsewhere about his remarkable career and gifts as a announcer. What struck me this morning as I read of his death was how widespread the expression “pass away” has become in conjunction with death. Virtually every headline or story said, “Keith Jackson passes away.” It has been argued to me that the expression “to pass away” in this context is traceable to Christian Science. I have not been able to verify that claim. It is true that the expression “pass away” does occur about 31 times in Scripture. At least some uses are similar to our expression, “he passed” or “she passed away.” E.g., “he passed away and lo, he was no more” (Ps 37:36); “for all our days pass away” (Ps 90:9); “until heaven and earth pass away” (Matt 5:18). So too, I find similar uses in English usage as early as the 14th century (Chaucer). Shakespeare used the verb thus. It is interesting that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that, used in this sense, the expression “to pass away” is chiefly associated with “Spiritualism” (Christian Science et al) and in North America. Apparently this usage is not yet widespread in the UK and Commonwealth nations.

Despite the precedent in Scripture and English usage, there is something troubling to the Christian about the almost eerie uniformity of the use of “pass away” for “to die” and the near absence of the latter. It has a Stepford quality about it. At the same time, at memorials, which I seem to be attending more frequently than I would like these days, one hears similar expressions with increasing regularity: “He is not gone. He is with us in spirit” or “he lives on in our hearts” and the like. I think it would be shocking were the minister to say to the assembled, “Sister Jones is dead.” I suspect we would hear audible gasps to be confronted so boldly with the obvious, which we seem bent on shading or even denying.

Though it is true that the figure “to pass away” is used in Scripture for death the expression “to die is used more than 10 times more frequently. In the ESV the verb “to die” is used 583 times. Americans have reversed the ratio. We are much more likely now to use the figure “to pass away” than to use the unequivocal, plain expression “she died.” It is no accident that our turn to the metaphor, in place of plain speech, has come in a period of history when we as disconnected from death as any culture in human history. People rarely die at home any more. The “authorities” seem to be against that sort of thing these days.  Municipalities seem to require paramedics to pound of the chests of 97-year olds rather to allow them to die. We are whisked away in screaming ambulances, connected to tubes and wires, and subjected to hourly inspections before being shipped off to a “nursing home” or mercifully to hospice care. In any event, death seems mostly to happen out of view and then our human remains, which the Lord has promised to raise from the dead, are shoved into a sort of mechanical Gehenna and then bottled and placed on the mantle.

It is as if we are now wholly committed to denying the reality of death so that we do not have to face the reality of the sin that brought death. Yet Christians should have no part in any such denial. We should hate death as the last enemy but we should embrace the reality of death. It is to be resisted until it has overtaken us. We should speak plainly about it. In Adam’s fall we all sinned. In sin, death entered the world and stalks us relentlessly. Death even took our Savior. It is vital that we affirm the reality of death. Our Muslim neighbors deny that Jesus of Nazareth died. They deny that he was on the cross even as they affirm “Issa” as a “prophet.” Well, he is our chief prophet but he also our great high priest and he is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world and to complete that work he had to die and to die he had to be crucified and he was. He was in the tomb.

The good news is that on the third day he was raised from the dead. There is salvation from death. It comes through death. When we are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, we die. Our baptism is a sign of our death with Christ. By his Spirit we are raised to newness of life. Our baptism is a sign that believers have been washed of their sin by the righteousness of Christ received by grace alone, through faith alone. Until Jesus comes again bodily to judge the living and the dead we shall all die but we shall all also be raised at the last day. Believers in Jesus shall be raised to joy and everlasting life. Unbelievers shall be raised to judgment and condemnation but know certainly that until Jesus returns we shall all die. Let us not speak equivocally about this reality. Let us Christians, of all people, speak plainly and truthfully and graciously about the realities of sin, death, resurrection, and the life to come.

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  1. Thank you. The first time I heard a Christian friend say “he passed” it sounded so strange that I asked “he passed what”?

  2. The first funeral I had to officiate I was intentional to use the words “death”, “died”, etc. The family thanked me for talking openly and frankly about death and how terrible it is and the resurrection of the dead. They said it was very healing for them.

  3. Super interesting book by Dave Grossman entitled “On Killing”, which I read when I was in the Army goes into great detail about how our culture has whitewashed all death from public view. Not that long ago we buried our own dead and killed our own animals to eat. In today’s America – when you buy perfectly wrapped steak or chicken breasts – gone from the mind is the image of the slaughter of a life. Our nations enemies abroad still bury their dead and kill their food. Highest recommendation for a book. His other book “On Combat” is also fantastic.

  4. When my son died, it was impossible for me to use the word ‘died’ because as a Christian, I knew that he had passed from this life to everlasting life with Our Father God. Although I can now say he died, I still prefer ‘passed away’ as I know he is more alive now than he was when he lived his earthly life. I am not denying the ‘reality of death’ but I am comforted by knowing that although my son’s body is dead, his spirit lives in Christ. I love the Reformed faith, but sometimes people’s words can be very cruel while they’re trying to make a point.

  5. Seems like I recall reading somewhere that it was Aimee McPherson who popularized the expression “passed (or passing) away.” Not sure why this was the case, if it is true.

  6. I’ve noticed as well that many Christians speak of a deceased person in Heaven as playing golf, fishing, having a family reunion/extended vacation, and causing a disturbance among the angels and God Himself with their practical jokes/ruckus. More often, it is expressed that the deceased are NOW completely healed. The truth of the resurrection of the body on the last day isn’t mentioned, except in the liturgy of the funeral service itself, if at all.

  7. My dad insisted he was going to die, and so he did in November last year. The catechism answers the question as to his burial in that it showed that Christ died. It is our flesh that dies, and our soul is brought to glory. In the resurrection, body and soul are reunited, there to live forevermore with God.

  8. Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?
    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. I Cor. 15:55-57
    I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better. Phil. 1:23
    For those who trust in Christ, death is nothing to fear.

  9. Greetings. My name is Mark. I am a Hospice Nurse. I hope you don’t mind if I bring a different perspective. While I thoroughly agree that our culture has, and is, in radical denial of our mortality, I don’t find fixating on the terms of “passing away” vs “death/dead” to be that revealing, as there are other motives to using such phrases. While most believers and unbelievers that I work with use the phrase, “passed away”, they have no issues referring to their loved one as actually being in the process of “dying”. Typically, the utilization of “passed away” is used as more of a term that conveys empathy and dignity for both the one who has died, and for the ones who have been left behind. For those who are more theologically inclined, we prefer the phrase “passed away” as we are reacting against naturalistic materialistic conceptions of death and hence, prefer a more “spiritualized” phraseology. Nevertheless, I do agree. Believers, who have been reared in our American culture, do tend to use such softer phrases to attempt to lessen the sting of death. However, it has been my experience that such linguistic techniques never actually lessen the sting. The majority tend to resort to utilizing other technological or pharmaceutical escapes in their striving to ease their pain after the linguistic tricks no longer work.

    Anyways, thank you for the article.

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