‘Only the good die young’ and other untruths

My columns are usually whimsical and somewhat irreverent takes on language-related issues that tickle my fancy. But not this one. If you are in the mood for a light-hearted skip through the English language I am going to disappoint you.

She was alive. She lived. She was living.

She was dying. She died. She is dead.

These words are harsh and sombre and the transition from life to death so final. The words make us feel uncomfortable so we’ve invented euphemisms, curious phrases to make death easier to talk about, more palatable.

She passed away

She is no longer

She departed

She is in a better place

She rests in peace

She is deceased

She stopped living

She breathed her last

She gave up the ghost

She succumbed


She died.

It doesn’t matter how you say it, the fact remains that, in plain language, she is dead. I prefer “is dead” to “died”. “She died” (or any one of the inadequate options I listed above) implies that she did something, that it involved an act of volition on her part.

It didn’t. She fought death to the (very) bitter end. She did not want to die. She was not ready to die. And I refuse to accept that her time had come. Or that she is now in a better place.

These and other meaningless platitudes are linguistic constructs we use when we don’t know what else to say. Much as I love Billy Joel, he immortalised one of the most ludicrous of all these mottos in his song “Only the good die young”.

Our greatest thinkers – writers, philosophers, religious leaders and poets have spent centuries trying to soften the grim blow of death, to make sense of their own grief, to console those who have lost a loved one. (There I go using delicate language instead of brutal realism – “losing” a loved one, as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell so wittily retorts, implies carelessness on our part. Except in extreme cases, nobody dies because their loved ones forgot where they put them.)

As beautiful as the words of the popular eulogy poem “Do not stand at my grave and weep” are, I take no comfort in its message:  “I am not there; I did not die.”  What was the attributed author, Mary Frye, thinking when she wrote these words? That we would be fooled into believing the person we had just buried was not actually dead? That we would find solace in the thought that they were everywhere around us?

She is dead. Nothing anyone says can change that.

Filmmakers have tackled the subject from all angles – from heartbreaking, poignant films we call tearjerkers to comedies that make us cry with laughter.

One of the silliest films I ever saw was Death Becomes Her. I loathed the film and now I hate the fact that it introduced an inane phrase into my head, one I can’t seem to expunge.

Death is not becoming. Death did not become her. Living became her.

One of the most touching funeral scenes is that in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And it is not just because the actor who played the vicar at the funeral was my great uncle, Neville Phillips, although that does make me swell with pride.

The bereaved partner of the dead man recites the beautiful poem Stop all the Clocks by W H Auden to the mourners. What I love about this poem is that it doesn’t depict death as an ethereal passing into a peaceful sleep which should make the mourners rejoice. Auden’s Death is a cruel force that has wrenched a person away and leaving a gaping hole in the lives of those left behind.

And despite John Donne’s eloquent words, “Death be not proud”, and his angry railing against Death, the annoying bully who doesn’t make good on his threats, it is Death that always wins in the end.

And we are left reeling, confused, angry, sad.

Rest in peace, my friend, you will be sorely missed. Always


This column first appeared on www.themediaonline.co.za.