Death, By Any Other Name
Published four years before he died this June at age 89, Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty qualifies as a death-defying act of self-expression.
Neither a daredevil nor one to diminish death’s awesome power, the distinguished poet’s confrontation took a simpler shape: He called death by its name.
With his characteristic, incisive humor firmly at hand till the end, Hall spends part of one essay listing the many words and phrases we put in death’s place. “Every day millions of people pass away ... but people don’t die,” he wrote.
Sometimes they rest in peace, quit this world, go the way of all flesh, depart, give up the ghost, breathe a last breath, join their dear ones in heaven, meet their Maker, ascend to a better place, succumb surrounded by family, return to the Lord, go home, cross over, or leave this world. ... Some expressions are less common in print: push up the daisies, kick the bucket, croak, buy the farm, cash out. All euphemisms conceal how we gasp and choke turning blue.
My newspaper training leads me in the same direction. Always choose the simplest word. Even if it becomes burdensome to read “said” dozens of times in the same article, use it. Any other synonym infers, investing the quote with emotion or motivation.
Death presents a similar concern. Calling death by any other name, the journalist finds himself or herself in unknown territory, a spiritual, ethereal realm, one of transitions and passages a fact-checker cannot verify.
Professionally it makes perfect sense to choose the word “death”. But sit me across from a grieved soul and I lose my nerve. Call it sensitivity, call it cowardice, call it whatever you want—off the page and in person, my thinking and speaking make room for passing away, resting in peace and leaving this world.
My words tremble at death’s door. My lips try to soften the impact of the loss. I speak as if conserving some hope that this was all a misunderstanding and the deceased will round the corner any minute, surprisingly intact.
Despite my slips of the tongue, I believe Hall was more right than even he knew. We assert a certain power over death when we call it by name.
Sitting beneath a canopy of Christmas lights in a friend’s living room earlier this month, I sat up straight, paying full attention, as a husband sang defiantly in death’s ear. A few feet away, his wife splashed signs of life across an empty canvas, painting in time to the music.
Performing under the name Pocket Vinyl, the duo directly addresses and amplifies subjects respectable people dare not name. Their concept albums contain “unsexy songs about sex” and, on 2013’s Death Anxiety, compositions about spiritual and material decomposition. They write death ballads, not to depress or devastate, but to embolden all within earshot.
The pair of young, tattooed troubadours hold more in common with Hall, bent and bearded in his last days, than either party might imagine. Even as they maintain a proper, healthy unease at the promise of death, these artists find some degree of liberation in giving it due credit, nothing more and nothing less.
Christian wisdom places death in eternal context, full of force yet far from final. With this perspective, a temptation arises—to use the sorts of phrases Hall poked fun at, in some effort to tell the truth about the temporal nature of death and how we travel through it.
But fidelity to the realities around us and outside us, to the natural and supernatural, requires an economy of speech. We deny something about death when we soft-pedal or sugarcoat it.
Death, which steals time from lovers. Death, which cleaves parents from children. Death, which comes on sudden like a storm, or slowly corrupts the body. We mouth cold comfort to the departed, and those left behind, when we speak of death as anything but the ruthless, howling, ungodly beast it is.
The story of Jesus reads far less urgent when we turn the pages of a thesaurus. We render his Revelation 1 declaration flat, almost unnecessary, if we read it “I hold the keys of cashing out and Hades.”
Substitute the phrases Hall names, and our hymns and liturgies grow toothless. Singing “The man Jesus Christ laid passing away in his grave” messes with meter and meaning. In what spirit would we recite “Christ has kicked the bucket, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”? We would glare at the pastor who baptized a new saint with “buried in the likeness of his crossing over, raised to walk in newness of life.”
The potency of Jesus’ death—and the beauty of every benefit it affords—rests, in part, on his overcoming a truly powerful foe. “Giving up the ghost” strips that act, and his three-days-later triumph, of its vigor and beauty. A cage match with death precedes resting in and passing us peace.
Perhaps the key comes not in inventing new words, but denying death the final word. Call death by its name, but don’t stop talking. Invest the word of its full, awful meaning, then use words and phrases which mean even more. Resurrection. Recreation. All things new.
Facing down death, and having eyes to see beyond it, means speaking bluntly in one breath, beautifully in the next.
Donald Hall spoke of death as a matter of fact. “It is sensible of me to be aware that I will die one of these days,” he wrote. “I will not pass away.”
With truth in our heads, grace in our hearts, and the Holy Spirit at our backs, we may do likewise. Talk about death as a matter of fact, then breathe out an even greater fact: the giver of life, who calls his nemesis by name, then puts death in its place.