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Passing, passing on, or passing away: what matters is pastoral sensitivity

29 August 2014


From Dr Sandy Brewer
Sir, - Earlier this year, the Church Times provided an excellent review of Inside Grief, edited by Bishop Stephen Oliver (Books, 14 February). I read the book, having been recently bereaved, and found it to be an exemplary text, especially the chapter in which the editor writes of his own experience of bereavement

The Revd Dr Rachel Mann's article "Be honest about the finality of death" (Comment, 15 August) attracted my attention for similar reasons. The article prompted two letters last week, both supportive. But I believe that important points are being overlooked if we accept Dr Mann's comments without first engaging critically with some of the implications of her words.

Dr Mann begins her discussion by looking at what she sees as "a fashionable way of talking about death in our culture", and writes that nowadays, "rather than saying that someone has died, many people now say they have 'passed'." She sees this as evidence of society's "becoming ever more frightened by the finality of death", and thus resorting to euphemisms.

But I recall from my childhood in the 1950s that describing someone as having "passed away" was common usage; and the OED reveals a much longer history.

Anyone who has cared for a terminally ill relative, partner, or friend will need no lessons on the reality of death and the process of dying. Seeing a person you love move from being in a state of physical suffering to death is unarguably to witness a transition, and so can easily be equated to "passing" without being in any way a euphemism. Analogies and symbolism are the stuff of much poetry; we do not see this as a flight from reality or linguistic dishonesty, but an enriching of human expression.

I offer a plea for compassion for the dying and the bereaved, that they not be further burdened by the requirement to meet the aesthetic standards of a prescribed language, especially by those whose calling is to minister to all members of their wider congregations. I would also think poorly of any member of the clergy who thought it appropriate to swap "funeral stories" as Dr Mann describes in her article.

It is vital in an equal society, and in a Church committed to respect for all, that dying and bereavement should not be ring-fenced by any form of cultural correctness. There are social and ethnic groups in the UK who have long experienced the scrutinising (and often the correcting) of their language-use by people in positions of responsibility. We can only hope that bereavement does not become yet another human experience circumscribed by experts giving us the "stages of grieving", and assigning to us appropriate behaviour and acceptable expressions.

Dr Mann provides interesting statistics to show a marked decline in Anglican funerals. There could be many reasons for this, not least the closure of many parish churches. But it might be that some of the bereaved sense the attitudes of those (few, I hope) sitting in judgement on their choice of expressive vocabulary, and decide that they would, in the moment of greatest need, prefer to be among those who demonstrate compassion and communicate spiritual understanding.

Castle Douglas DG7 1NP

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