Referring to Death in Writing
Alright, this is one of the things that I hate about writing. People really avoid the words DEATH, DEAD, DYING etc. Not sure why people avoid talking about this stuff. And when they do, they avoid saying it out straight…
Here are three questions about how to treat references to people who have died, and my responses.
1. For how long after someone’s death is it necessary and/or appropriate to use “the late” to describe them? I know we don’t say “the late Ludwig van Beethoven,” but what about a board chairman who died twelve years ago?
There’s no standard rule, but in objective, dispassionate content, late should generally be used only a few years after someone’s death. (A widow or widower referring to a deceased spouse, however, gets a lifetime pass.) And generally speaking, I find the use of this turn of phase completely unnecessary. It rarely gives the reader any more information about the person who has died. In fact because there is no rule as to how long to use it, there may be confusion when you’re using it.
2. If I refer to someone’s having died in 2001, do I refer to the person in the same sentence as “the late John Smith,” for example, or is that redundant?
Late is redundant to an explicit reference to a person’s death, and the objective reference is preferable to late. For example, “The project was funded by a bequest from the late John Smith, who died in 2001” is redundant, and “The project was funded by a bequest from John Smith, who died in 2001” is preferable to “The project was funded by a bequest from the late John Smith,” because the former sentence is more specific and more direct. While people tend to avoid using direct language themselves, they usually respond better when I writer uses direct language (even when writing about death).
3. Is it objectionable in formal writing for the general public to refer explicitly to death — i.e., are euphemisms like “passed away” truly preferable to died?
On the contrary: Died is preferable to euphemisms like “passed away.” In informative text, use straightforward language; readers appreciate clear, specific wording and don’t need to be coddled with tiptoeing generalities. However, the euphemisms do have a place in poetic language. But try to use something creative and fresh. But generally speaking, just use the words: death, died and dying.
Alright, done ranting 😛