As a funeral celebrant, I’m in the delicate position of meeting people when they’re in a time of deepest grief. Pre-COVID, I would have visited their houses, but now I’ll have the conversation to plan the funeral ceremony over Zoom or WhatsApp. And because of this delicate situation, I’ll use the most delicate words I can, so I won’t cause any more upset. That’s why I’ll say that the family’s loved one has passed away, not died.
‘Passed away’ has become a very popular way to say that someone has gone out of existence. Some people find it comforting, a phrase that softens the blow. Some people see it as a way of diluting the truth of the situation. Why not just say they died? That’s what happened. I’d be more in the second camp. But it doesn’t matter what I think. I’d there to give service and comfort to the families. So, I’ll use the words that soften the blow.
Besides, I’ve discovered that the phrase ‘passed away’ didn’t start off as a way of avoiding the truth. And it’s also not an American phrase as many people think. It’s a phrase that originates in 15th century England, and it meant that a person’s soul has passed over to the other side. I think that’s rather lovely, and gives the phrase more power than I knew it had.
Using the Family’s Language
In general, I let the family guide my choice of language. If the family want me to say their loved one died, I’ll say they died. I’ll listen to the words the family use to describe what happened to their loved one and I’ll use those words. This is particularly important when the death is traumatic, the result of a killing or a suicide. I could write a whole post on that alone.
At the other end of the scale, the person who has passed away may have been a real colourful character, someone who was a bit cheeky and naughty in their humour. In circumstances like that, it’s perfectly appropriate to use humorous language.
You can say, ‘he was a bit of a rogue,’ ‘she’d call a spade a shovel.’ You’re reflecting who the person was and it’ll give people at the funeral a laugh, and a chance to remember their loved one fondly.
Sometimes the family didn’t get on with their loved one who has passed away. That’s the reality. And sometimes the language they want to use can be pretty brutal. When that happens, it’s my job as a celebrant to encourage them to soften that language.
I’d remind them that there will be people there who did get on their loved one and who’ll be upset by language that’s too harsh. Saying, ‘He was not an easy man’ usually covers all bases. It’s honest, but it’s also kind.
Overall, that’s the balance I’m aiming to strike as a funeral celebrant when I’m choosing my words – honest but kind. I am to offer comfort, but I also aim to be authentic, to truly reflect who the person was. Ultimately, it’s the family who’ll dictate the choice of words. I have to take myself out of the picture. I will choose the words that give them solace, and if I achieve that, then I know my work is done.
Has your loved one passed away? Are you looking to find the right words to say your goodbyes? I’d be happy to help. Have a look at my funerals page to find out how my funeral ceremonies work.