Some Thoughts in Passing about Passing

Jonathan Den Hartog

With the opening of the NFL season (and Art's post below), such a title might imply more football conversation, but instead, let's take this in a more somber direction: talking about death. 

It's not that I have an overly morbid mindset, but over the past month, the theme has reappeared enough to have this on my mind.

Perhaps it's simply the fact that my sabbatical has "passed into the the past" and I'm starting a new school year.

On a scholarly front, it may be from reading Miles Mullin's great posts on American ways of death over at (here, and here).

In my spare time reading, I recently read Eric Ortlund's Dead Petals. It's a zombie apocalypse (yes, paging Kelly Baker...), but lifts the genre to more theological heights. In the midst of an apocalypse that is also a revelation (hence an unveiling), the book asks readers to consider what the proper mode of living is in a world surrounded by death. For Ortlund, death is a current reality that need not be fictionalized. So, how to live in response to it is the challenge. Ortlund offers a picture of grace and hope in the midst of death.
Dead Petals - A Zombie Apocalypse, by Eric Ortlund

Or, it may simply be that I'm still shocked that the cliff-hanger from NBC's series Revolution sent armed nuclear missiles flying toward Philadelphia and Atlanta.

In any case, I want to offer a hypothesis regarding public talk about death and then let readers either confirm or deny my reading.

My claim would be that in the past decade, the normal elocution has shifted from someone "passing away" to someone simply "passing." The dropping of the preposition actually signals a greater uncertainty about the meaning of death.

"Passing away" implied a direction or a goal. There was a silent destination, but in most cases the meaning was to heaven. "Crossing Jordan's stormy banks" was difficult, but the sense was that "Beaulah land" was on the other side.

Granted, "passing away" was not as explicit as it might have been, and it undoubtedly obscured both the painful elements of death and religious differences. Still, it operated within a broadly Christian conception of death and dying.

By contrast, "passing" seems simply a polite form of dying, without a goal.

I have a very distinct memory of when I became aware of this shift. I was watching the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Johnny (played by Joaquin Phoenix), when asked about his brother, simply gasped out, "he passed." At the time I thought this was a strange formulation, especially for someone raised in the South--I would still contend it's not the wording that would have come from Cash. Since that time, I've seen and heard "passing" much more and "passing away" much less.

My theory is that this points to a break-down in public ability to talk in a shared way about death. This is a small marker, but a marker nonetheless of a creeping secularization. If death has no direction to pass to, all we can do is note the fact of it. Have we, then, lost the cultural ability to clothe death in a larger or religious purpose?

Again, I pose this as a hypothesis. What do RiAH readers think?