Answers to Questions About Referring to Death

By Mark Nichol

Here are three questions about how to treat references to people who have died, and my responses.

1. For how long after someone’s death is it necessary and/or appropriate to use “the late” to describe them? I know we don’t say “the late Ludwig van Beethoven,” but what about a board chairman who died twelve years ago?
There’s no standard rule, but in objective, dispassionate content, late should generally be used only a few years after someone’s death. (A widow or widower referring to a deceased spouse, however, gets a lifetime pass.)

2. If I refer to someone’s having died in 2001, do I refer to the person in the same sentence as “the late John Smith,” for example, or is that redundant?
Late is redundant to an explicit reference to a person’s death, and the objective reference is preferable to late. For example, “The project was funded by a bequest from the late John Smith, who died in 2001” is redundant, and “The project was funded by a bequest from John Smith, who died in 2001” is preferable to “The project was funded by a bequest from the late John Smith,” because the former sentence is more specific.

3. Is it objectionable in formal writing for the general public to refer explicitly to death — i.e., are euphemisms like “passed away” truly preferable to died?
On the contrary: Died is preferable to euphemisms like “passed away.” In informative text, use straightforward language; readers appreciate clear, specific wording and don’t need to be coddled with tiptoeing generalities.

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5 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Referring to Death”

  • Bill

    Another reason not to use “passed away” in any reference is that it implies the person has passed from one realm of existence to another, a belief which even the person being referred to may not have held.

  • Cathy

    In regards to #3, I agree with Bill

    In my experience with indigenous peoples of North America, the word “died” is incorrect. Many (but not all) indigenous Native American peoples, including those of Meso-America, have spiritual beliefs that reject the words “died” and “passed away.” This is because life is just one of the realms we pass through in a cycle. When someone dies, he or she passes to the next realm in a cycle. I understand this is a different concept for those in the dominant culture but, out of respect, “passes” is a correct word to use in speaking of someone who has died. The word is not a euphemism.

    Cathy

    Cathy A. Burton
    Beeler Family Director of Education
    Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
    500 West Washington Street
    Indianapolis, IN 46204-2707

  • Darlene Elizabeth Williams

    I have to disagree with not saying someone has “passed away”. My mother-in-law passed away yesterday. It would be rather blunt and seem heartless to say “She died.”.

    It is a much gentler way to speak of a person’s death in the initial phase, especially when informing others of the death.

    I use this phrase for about 2 weeks and then I say “So-and-so died…”.

    I agree with Cathy. It is a form of respect.

  • Mark Nichol

    Darlene:

    This post does not pertain to conversation and correspondence; it discusses how to refer to death in formal writing. (However, usage in informal situations is a personal matter: When my mother died, I told people exactly that, and many other people do not feel the need to use euphemisms.)

  • Precise Edit

    “the late” is useful for distinguishing from a person still living, particularly if the person being discussed is not well known to the reader or not recognizable from the context.

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