Recently, a parishioner described to me her experience of a funeral at another church. “They kept talking about the person’s ‘transition,’” she said. “It took me a while to figure out that they were using that word as a euphemism for death.”
That was a new one for me, too.
But nowadays we have all sorts of euphemisms for death. Depending on the context, you might hear “gave up the ghost,” “called home,” or – most ubiquitous – “passed away.”
I never use any of them.
If someone tells me that so-and-so “passed away” I’ll usually respond with, “I’m so sorry to hear that they died.” It may be momentarily shocking to my interlocutor, but I want language that tells the truth and reflects the reality in which we live – and die.
I find that honesty is what we need most in times of grief and crisis. It is a comfort to people to tell them the truth, to name the reality of our shared experience. To do otherwise is to go along with what can become a harmful pretense. To say what is true, on the other hand, is to give language – and some sense of control – to people who are desperate for something real to cling to at a moment when things are at their most surreal.
Children, with their extremely low tolerance for BS, know instinctively the comfort of naming reality.
Some years ago, I visited friends to support them as their then-five-year-old daughter, Zee, underwent surgery to correct a vision problem. After the surgery, Zee needed drops put in her eyes every four hours and it required all three of us adults: I held down her body while her mom held her head and opened her eyelids and dad put in the drops. It was a horrific process.
After one of these ordeals, Zee and I sat on the stairs together. Her swollen eyes were closed but the tears were still flowing. “Why is this happening to me?” she asked. “I don’t know, Zee,” I told her. “It’s such a bummer.” Suddenly, her tears stopped, and she turned up her beautiful little face to me: “What’s a ‘bummer’?” she asked.
I answered, “A bummer is when something happens that you don’t have any control over but it’s bad and you just have to find a way through it.”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, Zee’s face relaxed and she smiled – the first time I’d seen her grin since her surgery. “Yes!” she exclaimed with relief. “That’s exactly what this is. This is a bummer!” Without intending to, I had given her language to describe her reality and it made all the difference in her world. Finally, she could name her experience properly and it assuaged her anxiety and gave her back some sense of control.
On Ash Wednesday, the Church insists on telling us the truth about our reality. There are no euphemisms here. No pretense about how far we have fallen or how we will end. Ash Wednesday cuts through the BS: “You serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers,” the prophet Isaiah tells us baldly. We “quarrel” and “fight” with one another and “strike with a wicked fist” (Isaiah 58:3-4). Neither does the psalmist pull any punches: “Our days are like the grass…When the wind goes over it, it is gone, and its place shall know it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). And starkest of all are the words we hear as the cross of ash is smeared upon us: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
When we show up to an Ash Wednesday service this and every year, we can expect to hear the truth about the reality in which we live. We are all sinners. We have fallen short of God’s dream for us. And we will, all of us, die. Not “pass away,” not “be called home,” not “transition.” Die. We will die. We are made of dust and to dust we shall return. That is our reality. We must not shy away from it.
But strange as it may seem, naming that stark reality is actually the gift of Ash Wednesday. When we face up to the fact that we will certainly die, that we are dust and to dust we shall return, we will find that the idea of death isn’t as scary as we first thought. Just as Zee’s ability to name her experience as a “bummer” brought her comfort, so too naming death for what it is brings us comfort. It takes the sting out of death because it removes at least some of our uncertainty about it.
If we say that Uncle Jimmy “transitioned,” we will be left wondering – transitioned to what? If we say that Aunt Sue “passed away,” we might imagine she has become like a gas. But when we say, with confidence, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” we know exactly what we are dealing with – that we will return to what we were before – something familiar if yet unknown – and we need not be afraid.
That is the truth, and the good news of Ash Wednesday.