There are countless sayings about death – but we’ve selected our favorite 29 for this article on death idioms and metaphors. Some great death metaphors include:
- He is Sleeping with the Fishes
- He has Kicked the Bucket
- He Bit the Dust
- He has gone Gently into the Night
- He went to the Farm Upstate
We also have many readers who are English as a Second Language (ESL) learners who like to learn about these sayings to improve their English language skills. We hope you like these phrases, too!
See Also: Death Symbolism
Idioms & Metaphors for Death
1. Kicked the Bucket
The term ‘kicked the bucket’ is a morbid term! I didn’t know what this meant until I was researching for this article. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it comes from the idea of a person standing on a bucket when being hung. Instead of waiting for the hangman to kill them, the would kick the bucket out from under them, thereby denying the hangman the pleasure. How gross!
We might consider this a metaphor because these days the person who dies doesn’t literally kick the bucket. Rather, it’s an expression designed to be interpreted metaphorically not literally.
2. Fallen off the Perch
This metaphor makes us think of a bird sitting on their perch. When the bird dies, they lose their balance and fall to the floor! But today we usually apply this term to anyone or anything that dies, not just birds. So when we say a person has “fallen off the perch”, they clearly haven’t literally fallen off a perch. Thus, this term is also a metaphor for death.
3. Sleeping with the Fishes
This term might have its origins with sailors. If we were to throw a dead body overboard, it ends up in the ocean among the fishes. The additional use of the term “sleeping” adds to this sense of death – when someone is sleeping, they’re not conscious and can seem dead! Of course, nowadays we might use this term for anyone who is dead, even if their body hasn’t been thrown into the ocean. Therefore, we can say this term has become a metaphor and removed from its original literal terminology.
You could even extend this metaphor by using the old sailor phrase “Davy Jones’ Locker”, which means the very bottom of the ocean. So you could say “He’s sleeping with the fishes in Davy Jones’ Locker”.
4. Pushing up Daisies
This metaphor refers to the fact that when is buried their body becomes fuel for plants to grow. The buried body is now the reason daisies are growing above their grave. According to worldhistories.net, the term was used a little in the 19th Century, but gained popularity among the British fores in World War 1. Alternatives include “pushing up daisy roots” and “being under the daisies”.
5. Six feet Under
Often, this one’s literal and not a metaphor, especially if the person has been buried. But if a person has been cremated, then this phrase is still used as a generalized euphemism for death in order to make it seem less harsh or morbid. So, we included it because we feel it’s a relevant saying that is worth exploring to discuss death and could be used in place for other metaphorical phrases about death.
We say someone is six feet under because the standard grave depth is six feet.
6. Counting Worms
This one’s also somewhat self-explanatory. We say someone is counting worms because if they’re buried, they are underground among the worms. It’s somewhat similar to the saying that we’re “counting sheep” when sleeping.
Of course, the person is not literally counting worms – they’re dead! But if you could imagine you’re underground with absolutely nothing to do, then perhaps you’ll be bored enough to start counting how many worms pass you by every day.
7. Given up the Ghost
This term is often used when referring to a piece of machinery that has broken down. For example, if you car splutters to a stop, you might say that the car has given up the ghost. So if you use the term, we’d recommend using it when referring to a piece of machinery rather than a person as that’s more intertextually relevant nowadays.
But the term’s origin is certainly in explaining that when a person dies, their spirit (or ‘ghost’) leaves them and goes to heaven. In fact, the phrase is even used in the King James Bible when referring to the death of Jesus. Mark 15:37 reads: “And Jesus cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost.” Other versions of Mark 15:37 read: “And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last.”
8. Slipped Away
This is an idiom we might use to explain how someone died softly in their sleep, as in “he just slipped away quietly in the night”. It refers to someone dying peacefully and without fanfare. Another time you might use this term is when someone dies without saying goodbye to others. Note that this term can also be used in other contexts, like when someone leaves a party without saying goodbye.
9. Resting in Peace
Rest in peace is one of the most common terms that we associate with death. Of course, a person who is dead isn’t literally resting – they are dead! But to say they are resting is to refer to their soul no longer having to deal with earthly worries. We will often write “Rest in Peace” on a tombstone as a well-wish to the person as they pass into the afterlife. If they are resting in peace, they are not being tormented in death (and, hopefully, not in hell!).
10. Started a Worm Farm
This one’s a little more fun and funny. E.E. Cummings used this term in his poem “Nobody Loses All the Time”:
when my Uncle Sol’s coffin lurched because
somebody pressed a button
(and down went
and started a worm farm)
Of course, this phrase refers to the fact that when you’re buried, worms will (at some point) start consuming your body; thus, you will be a breeding ground for worms to live and thrive.
11. Joined the Great Majority
Edward Young used this term in his poetry, but now it is a very common idiom to refer to dead people. According to the Population Reference Bureau, about 100 billion people have died and there are about 7 billion alive today. So when we die, we join the majority of people who have ever lived on earth by entering into the afterlife. This term is often used in humorous contexts.
12. Go Gently into that Good Night
Dylan Thomas made this phrase famous with his poem “Do not go gentle into that good night“. This poem talks about fighting against ageing and disease and sustaining a love of life. Due to the great popularity of this poem, today we still use this term to talk about people fighting against a terminal disease and refusing to give up the fight.
13. Rest your Bones
This saying is from John Donne’s poem “Death, Be Not Proud”:
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
When we lower a body into the ground, we are “resting their bones” – laying them down for one last time. But the saying “to rest your bones” also brings forth an image in the mind of someone’s bones being old, sore and weary. They’re finally ‘resting’ once someone has died and is relieved of the pains in your body.
14. Shuffled off this Mortal Coil
The ‘mortal coil’ is a term used to describe life as a quotidian burden – every day is a repetition of the last as we work to eat and get by. When someone ‘shuffles off’ the moral coil, they die.
This saying was made famous in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet in the famous soliloquy “to be or not to be“:
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life
15. Fell like Flies (Simile)
This saying refers to the deaths of many people in quick succession. It brings forth a vision of flies falling from the air when you spray them with insect killer spray. We might use this term when people are killed en masse by a machine gun, such as in World War 1. Similarly, it is often used in reference to mass deaths during a pandemic or due to a virus.
16. Met His Maker
To say someone has met their maker is to say they have gone to heaven to be judged by God. God is the ‘maker’ in this saying. When we die, many people believe we go to heaven to be with God. In Christianty, we go to see Saint Peter who guards the gates of heaven. He judges you and your life before letting you into heaven to be with your maker. So, we can see meeting your maker as an idiom that refers to going to be judged for your deeds on earth and get your comeuppance.
17. Went on to his Reward
To say someone has went onto their reward is to imply that someone has been a good upstanding person and is going to now be rewarded with eternal life in heaven. However, you might also say this ironically, for example when someone who was a criminal, thief or murderer in life. In this instance, we’re saying they have gone on to their reward, but really we’re saying they will finally get what they deserve: likely, eternity in hell.
18. Beyond the Grave
To say someone is beyond the grave is to say they’re dead. But it’s most often used when we’re talking about “communication beyond the grave”. It is used by people who believe in speaking with dead relatives or spirits – for example, “he’s speaking to me from beyond the grave”.
19. Beyond the Veil
“The veil” is a term used to refer to the divide between life on earth and the afterlife. We use this phrase ‘the veil’ to refer to the fact that we cannot see into the afterlife. It’s a bit like a curtain that can’t be seen through. So, we all are unsure and wonder about what is to come after we die. So, to say that someone or something is “beyond the veil” is to say that they’re on the afterlife where we cannot see or communicate with them.
20. The Big Sleep
There are many phrases that use the term “sleep” (or similes) to refer to death – for example, an “eternal slumber”, “the long sleep”, and “the final resting place”. One such phrase is “the big sleep”. This is the longest sleep we will have – as of course it doesn’t end! Of course, death is not sleeping, but the similarities (we’re not conscious, not moving, and can’t be communicated with.
21. Bite the Dust
To say someone has bitten the dust is to say they’ve died, but we use it in a very specific circumstance. It’s mostly used when someone is defeated in battle or a fight. The victor will say that the person “bit the dust” – was defeated by the victor. The term is ancient, but is clearly most popular these days with the boastful ballad from Queen, which is a victory song about being the best at something:
22. Dead as a Dodo
The Dodo bird is an extinct bird from the island of Mauritius. The last recorded sighting of a living Dodo was all the way back in 1650. So, to say someone is dead as a Dodo is to say that yes, they are definitely dead. They’re so dead that they’re as dead as an animal that hasn’t been seen in 400 years! There is not one living Dodo left on earth.
23. Dead as a Doornail
This phrase comes from the practice of “dead nailing”. To dead nail is to get the protruding parts of a nail and bend them using a hammer to squash them into the wood. When a nail has been dead nailed, it’s not reusable and cannot be pulled out of the wood. Thus, to say ‘dead as a doornail’ is to say something is completely dead – it cannot be reused or fixed. For example, “Sorry, your computer is dead as a doornail.”
24. Went to the Farm Upstate
This idiom is the term we use to refer to dead pets, but nowadays it isn’t uncommon to hear it euphemistically used in reference to humans, too. The term is often used when trying to soften the blow of the death of a pet for children. Instead of telling a child that the pet has died, we tell them that the pet has gone to a better life in a nice, green farm where they can run wild with their friends. We might metaphorically be able to reflect on the idea of the “farm upstate” as heaven.
25. Went out with his Boots on
When you die with your boots on, you die while doing something active. The most common time this is used is when someone dies in war. But we will also use the term to refer to someone dying at a workplace or attempting an adventurous feat. It’s seen as a positive idea – i.e. that these people did not die passively. They died going out and tackling life. They died honorably.
26. Passed Away
This euphemism is one of the most common in everyday English parlance. It’s a term that is used to soften the concept that “somebody died”. Passing away is a higher-class, gentler way to say that someone has died. The term ‘passed’ here refers to someone having “passed on” from life to death. It is not the normal way we use the term “pass”, but is used regularly in the context of death.
27. Gone to his Judgement Day
Many religious people believe the day you die, you go to heaven and get judged by God. If God deems that you have been good in your life, you will be rewarded with eternal life, If he does not, then you will be sent down to hell. This idea of judgement day, then, has become an idiom to refer to death: “Where did he go?” … “He’s dead. He’s gone to his judgement day now.”
28. Snuffed Out
This metaphor draws reference to the extinguishing of a candle. When we put out a candle, we say that we ‘snuff’ it out. This is the process of denying the candle oxygen, so the flame is snuffed out. We often think of candles as a metaphor for life – the flame is like our soul. So when someone has ‘snuffed out’ or ‘snuffed it’, they have died – their candle has gone out.
29. Carked It
The term ‘carked it’ is a colloquial term to refer to someone dying. It is used in the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand. It may be a shortening of the term ‘carcass’ (a corpse). So, to ‘cark it’ is to become a carcass or a corpse. We will often use this term to refer to someone who died suddenly or in dramatic fashion, such as when they have a heart attack. However, we will usually not use the term in reference to someone we love.
Death is a topic that is often top of our minds. We will all face it one day. So there is little wonder that there are so many metaphors, idioms and euphemisms about the topic. Some are comical, some help soften it for mourners, and some come straight from important cultural texts like the Bible and Shakespeare plays.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.