What do you say when someone dies? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really learned how to talk about death. How to think about it. What to say to someone who’s recently bereaved? Just think about the language we do use. “Passed on.” “In a better place.” “Laid to eternal rest.” How about just “died”? The discomfort runs deep. Money doesn’t lie. And our aversion to death, especially in the United States, is big business. We pay for the body to be transported, embalmed, gussied up, and cremated, or perhaps buried in expensive caskets.

This is from Maria Konnikova, “How to Be Better at Death,” Freakonomics, February 3, 2021. It’s fascinating and informative throughout.

Parts of the interview reminded me of a book I read when I was about 17, a book titled Death, Here is Thy Sting. The sting was the high price of a casket, embalming, etc.

I chose to highlight the above passage because it relates to something I’ve followed. I never say that someone “passed” or “passed away.” It’s euphemistic and occasionally misleading. At pickleball a few months ago I was talking about my daughter having passed something or other. Someone who came in on the tail end and heard me saying that my daughter passed expressed her condolences. I quickly explained what I was saying.

I say what’s true: the person died. I got practice early on. My mother, who died of cancer on December 19, 1969, was bedridden at home from about mid-October on. (Actually, she spent her last 4 days in the hospital, connected to a bunch of tubes.) In early December, she dictated her obituary to either my sister or my brother. When she died, I called the Winnipeg Free Press to read the obituary over the phone. Here are two parts of the conversation:

David: On December 19, Norah Mary Henderson died.

Free Press: Uh, excuse me, what was that?

David: On December 19, Norah Mary Henderson died.

Free Press: Don’t you mean “passed away?”

David: No, I mean “died.”

Later, when I got to what would happen to her body, the conversation went as follows:

David: Her body will be donated to the University of Manitoba medical school.

Free Press: Don’t you mean “her remains?”

David: No, I mean “her body.”

The Free Press person writing it down was clearly uncomfortable. But they played it straight. I knew that if they didn’t, my mum (that’s the Canadian version of “mom”) would have been pissed off.

In December 2018, when I visited a funeral home in Toronto hours after discovering that my sister had died, I cut to the chase by saying to the employee: “I’m very sentimental about my sister; I have zero sentiment about a dead body.” I then went on to say that I wanted the cheapest cremation I could get.