Posted by: Peadar Ban | November 21, 2011

Pass On Death

I recently became aware that people do not die anymore, they do something else.  They “Pass”.  I know what dying is.  My first wife, Sheila, may she rest in peace, died in my arms.  Mariellen’s mother I carried from the chair she was sitting in to her bed barely an hour or so before she peacefully died next to her husband of fifty plus years. Her husband, Mariellen’s father, died in our home two years later, and I watched as the funeral director took him away two hours after in the deepest night.

Dying is the most natural thing to do for us all.  It happens quickly, slowly, violently, peacefully, painfully, softly.  It is for us all the final thing we do here.  Yet it is no longer spoken of.  Instead we disguise and avoid the nature of the act with a curtain word and now say people “Pass”.  Of course, we must wonder where they have passed.  Since it is said in hushed whispers they have “passed away” another question arises.  Where is this Away”?

Can you consider Heaven and Away, or Away and Hell?  Can one meditate on going away as one of the four last things: Away, Judgement, Heaven and Hell?  I was thinking about this as we rolled up to what I might call the Triduum of the Dead if I were in charge of naming such things; the three days from Halloween to All Souls Day at the beginning of this month of November which I have thought of, privately until now, as the Month of the Dead.

Mariellen and I attend a lot of funerals, at least 30 a year ( this year close to sixty if the trend continues) as part of her work as an organist at one of the parishes in town.  During the past two or so years things have slowly changed downstairs in the church as I watched from the choir loft.  Death itself is passing away.  Oh, people still die, but the way we treat their dying is changing, and changing in a way that, it seems to me, cheats everyone connected to the event.

In the first place, the time spent with the dead, and in offering condolences to the still living, has been shortened almost to the vanishing point.  No more the two or three day wakes at a funeral home; a custom which replaced the wake at home, ending in the night long vigil.  No more, even, the visit to the home after the burial.  And, rarely a return from the grave to the church for a meal by something called the Bereavement Committee for family and friends.  Frequently, these days, an obituary will announce there are no “calling hours” at the funeral home, but people are encouraged to leave a message on the funeral home’s web site.  How nice. Here is something to hold, to look at in the months to come and remember how his virtual hug was, err, something; Uncle Bill’s e-mail message of his sorrow for your loss.  Well, of course, Uncle Bill did have that fall several months several months before Ted passed.

Quite often too I witness folks walking into the church a few minutes before the Mass.  Boys and girls, young people, wander down the aisle, browsingly, nonchalantly, and stop from time to time to give one or the other a hug, a peck on the cheek before slouching into a pew to continue their texting.  Older folks will wander down the aisle too, and greet each other, and stand near the altar chattering amiably about work, or the kids (texting a few rows back), and poor Dave; always now better off for having passed, at last.  They’ll scatter to the pew when Dave appears in his big box and sit patiently until the thing is over.  If Dave is already present in a small box near his picture taken forty years ago surrounded by tasteful flower arrangement and a single candle it will be as if he isn’t e there at all.  Perhaps some of the women will peer at the photo or the flowers as they might at a well set table and say how nice it looks.  Why any more?  Dave isn’t here, really.

One or two of the very old will sit or kneel quietly and pray.  One or two.

If you are a Catholic..or were…even their obsequies are being pared down as you may conclude from the last paragraph.  Funeral Masses with the coffin present are becoming more rare in favor of a short service at the funeral home or the grave and, perhaps, a Memorial Mass when the weather is better and more people have time to come, like Dodie and Steve from Arizona, if they aren’t on another cruise to Zamboanga.

OK, I apologize to anyone who has ever been to Zamboanga on a cruise and all of the Zamboangananians (ese?).  It was snarky of me to do that.

For that matter coffins are being pared down, and replaced by little boxes.  Most often the reasons I hear given for this innovation, and I admit my survey is unscientific, are twofold.  Coffins and graves and concrete vaults are expensive.  They are also ecologically destructive.  Little boxes are not either of those things

Sometimes, I think, that the reason for all of this, these changes in the way we “do” death, is because we’d rather not have to think about it at all.  Death, as someone who is not dead once said about work, is an imposition on our free time, and the less we have to do with it the better off we all are.  I hesitate to add, here, in the end.

We have chosen to forget, to lay aside in the interest of more interesting things, the duty we owe the dead; the work to be done for them after they have gone.  Here I add, and for ourselves, too.  It doesn’t just end when their eyes close.  Life does go on.  Here and Away life continues.

That we have remembered that since the times of our dead cousins the Neanderthal is a credit to our understanding of life and, dare I say it, mercy and love.  That we seem to be about to forget it entirely does no one any good, not even those who have passed from our circle of attention…a poor little thing…like yesterday’s news, forgotten and unmourned.


  1. C. S. Lewis once called God’s attention toward us “the intolerable compliment.” Part of that intolerable compliment is “You will live forever.” The denial of death, I see it too, is yet another way to shuck off what makes us human; the compliment that holds us to a standard. Those texting kids at the funeral, the most arrogant among us perhaps, are also the most violently self-deprecating. Ask them about death, death of any kind, death of any thing. I recently was told by a healthy young woman “Abortion is probably the killing of a human life… But I guess that’s just an issue that I really don’t give a **** about.” I quote.

    “I love you,” when said to anyone imperfect (i.e. anyone you know) has this nuance of meaning: “You are one of the chosen race; you are Human, one of the Intolerably Complimented. You WILL die and you WILL live forever. PLEASE accept your mortality and your immortality; your humanness. It is worth it, but it will cost you your life, for if you try to save it you will lose it, but if you lose it for Him you will gain it.”

    Tell me, then, how do we love? It is very hard to love the texter at the funeral. That life he has to lose… It’s so empty. So shallow. These bouncing healthy young people, at the club, in the co-ed dorm, at the concert. How do you love a generation that has sold itself so cheaply? Doesn’t it seem like anyone, anyone! who has been intimate with a few strangers or shared a few drinks a few times, watched a few movies, could easily, easily! come to the conclusion that a life comprised of those things is not worth having at all? What a BORE that life is.

    It would take a deep despair to accept a life as shallow as that. They do not believe in any “Away.” Or if they do, they believe it only instinctively, and it’s the one instinct they’re willing to discipline. Indeed it takes some discipline to make a habit of being less than human. Why do they do it? Arrogance, or self-hatred? Is there a difference? It’s the refusal of the Compliment. It’s the young woman’s denial of a marriage proposal so as to leave the next weekend free for an orgy. Hamlet called death a “consummation.” Death is when we go to meet the Bridegroom, the Courter of our affections. The Complimentor. What if one enters the feast quietly by the side door; only mouthing the hymn of praise, and texting his earthly pleasures? Well, even if a person gets in, they’ll be dying to leave. If God allows the texter to leave, even gives him what he wants, He will be finally revoking the compliment. The texter will be sent away to wail and grind his teeth, as he was already in the habit of doing on earth. He will be sent to his final death; the death of the soul, far more frightening than the bodily death he refused to face.

    “God! how is it we fail to realize that the mask of pleasure, stripped of all hypocrisy, is that of anguish?” (Diary of a Country Priest, p 124)

    When death is denied, Life is denied.

    What can we do?


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