Deathly euphemisms: “rest in peace” and “thoughts and prayers”

rest in peaceDeath is a fact of life. Sayings like “rest in peace” and “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims” are euphemisms: they enable us to go on without thinking about death. Not thinking about death can help us cope, but let’s not imagine that we’re actually saying anything when we say these things.

I’ve been thinking about this for months, because my social media feeds are full of these words.

Rest in peace

The deaths of Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey of The Eagles have filled our Facebook with remembrances, typically something like “Glenn Frey wrote the soundtrack of my childhood. Rest In Peace.”

“Rest in peace” has an old Catholic origin (Requiescat in pace). But if you believe in heaven and hell, then (and I admit I am out of depth here), isn’t the soul supposed to be either out enjoying itself with all the other good souls or suffering eternal damnation? Where’s the resting? Apparently, “rest in peace” applies to purgatory, which some people believed is where the souls needed to go for a while before The Lord routed them appropriately. Do you believe in purgatory?

If you don’t believe in an afterlife at all, then what exactly is “rest in peace” supposed to mean? They’re dead, not resting. Why are you saying this?

“Rest in peace” is a mannerism, because we feel we need to say something — it’s a period at the end of any sentence about death. What it means, basically, is “He’s dead. It’s a shame, but we go on.” (It also means “I don’t want to talk any more about death, I don’t like it.”)

Thoughts and prayers

We have other mannerisms and euphemisms around death, especially when it’s ghastly and unthinkable. When somebody kills 20 children in Connecticut or 14 people in California or 30 people in Burkina Faso, or when 16,000 people die in Japan after an earthquake, we feel we must say something. Those who do not want to make a political statement about guns, terrorists, or nuclear power, but must say something, tend to say “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.”

Of course they are. And of course they say that they are. But what is this tweet-level comment supposed to mean? I think it means “I care.” That’s about it.

Praying is fine. Saying that you’re praying, on the other hand, is just inoculating yourself against criticism.

Thinking about death

If saying “rest in peace” or “thoughts and prayers” comforts you, good for you. But recognize that you are doing it to comfort yourself and include yourself in the group who are concerned. These words do nothing for the dead, and very little for the living.

Let’s do the hard work, here, and actually think about death. Imagine if there was no “R.I.P.” and no “thoughts and prayers” and you had to actually think about what you were saying. You might say something like this.

Alan Rickman gave me great joy, especially in Galaxy Quest. I miss him and his death makes me sad. At least we will always have his movies to comfort us.

David Bowie may be dead, but his music is immortal. His last album is a revelation.

The mass shooting in San Bernardino is an awful thing. I am going to think long and hard about the causes that enable people with these extreme and hateful views to be able to kill so many, so quickly. To honor the victims, I promise to work with my fellow members of Congress to find a solution that’s more carefully thought out than a 140-character tweet.

Death gives you a chance to think. Go ahead, think about it. You might learn something about yourself.

7 responses to “Deathly euphemisms: “rest in peace” and “thoughts and prayers”

  1. When expressing grief about celebrities/performers/famous leaders, etc. I agree it might mean more if we express how they affected our lives rather than using RIP or thoughts and prayers. However, having been through several deaths of family members in the last 18 months I believe it is hard to know what to say when someone passes away unless you knew them fairly well. I’ve always found it comforting when people remind me that the deceased is now at peace–no more pain, no more worries. If I knew the person who died, I will share a story or express my love or friendship for them, because everyone grieving only knows a certain part of that person’s life. It helps us to understand that the deceased meant something to others–left an impression, memory, legacy–besides what they meant to us. Keeping the survivors and the deceased in our thoughts and prayers, like everything we say, shouldn’t be expressed unless it is heartfelt. It brings comfort to many, and that is what we are trying to do by expressing our condolences. Gifts to the charity of their choice, flowers and cards are also a small way to express our shared sense of loss. Finally, if the death is the result of a drunk driver, gunmen, bombing, arsonist, etc., then I understand why people want to lobby their elected officials to change laws, policies and enforcement, but those pledges and efforts will mean more if separate from expressions of comfort to the family and friends.

  2. On the one hand, I respect your viewpoint. You should say what you find meaningful. Let others say what they find meaningful. Passing judgement on the words of others, however, seems counterproductive. Assuming you know what I, personally, mean when I make a post about or to someone seems off-putting at best.
    As to your RIP meaning, I believe the Jewish faith predates your Catholic reference and the expression originated from a passage in Isaiah dated 1 BC. I was educated in a Catholic high school. No such reference (RIP = purgatory rest) was ever stated in Religion class. Most used it in a similar fashion to the way I was raised.
    Hard to gauge sincerity of word via text whether a tweet or printed on the web. I gauge it by the person and my familiarity to that person. Many people, including myself, pray for others frequently. Telling someone they are in my heart and my prayers is the truth and said from a point of empathy. It is not meant as a “I’ve got to move on, so I am just going to throw this out and live my life.”
    If I do not know the person typing this type of statement, I try not to assume I think they mean anything different than what they type. Hopefully, you can too.
    If we keep finding fault with all we say or type, pretty soon we are going to have to be happy with silence. Welcome folks to articulate their sadness in a way that works for them, not just how you think they should do it.

    1. I appreciate your viewpoint as well. But please be aware that passing judgment on how people communicate is my chosen career. I am a critic, writer, and writing teacher — analyzing language is my business.

      1. Wow I’d like to know more about you. I would also like to know if 5 month old decedents are at peace and from what being that they never experienced the rigors of life

  3. I find it comforting to know others are praying for me. So, I hope my friends continue to tell me, provided they actually are doing as they say.

  4. I do not like euphemisms at all but sometimes there is a time and place for them. I think the reason we say that “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims” rather than go into a long politically-charged and angry rant about Gun Control (for example) is so that we will not upset people – especially the loved ones of those who died.

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