For a number of years, Richard Lederer wrote a column for the Portland papers about the English language. He often told stories about interesting words and phrases, and occasionally he offered a lesson on English grammar and usage.

We could use some of those lessons today. But Lederer has died, and no replacement has appeared.

In his place, I want to offer a lesson about something called euphemism: a mild or vague expression used as a substitute for blunt or disagreeable fact, such as “pre-owned” cars, rather than “used.”

The euphemism I want to discourage is “pass on” or “pass away” for “die.” It seems that, according to the papers, no one dies nowadays; they “pass away,” as if they just floated out the window.

Many people think this is the polite thing to say, but better English practice is to call a spade a spade. If someone dies, say “He died.” If he is buried, don’t say “He was laid to rest”; say “He was buried.”

Many of these euphemisms were invented by the undertakers of America to make their business seem more pleasant than it is. Author Jessica Mitford attacked this profession in her book “The American Way of Death,” first published in 1963.


As a transplanted Englishwoman, she found many American funerary practices strange and unrealistic. She objected to the prettifying of language and practice that American funeral directors had aggressively promoted.

In England and Europe, people are more realistic about death. Here, we have let the undertakers change our customs and our language.

Isabel Denham


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