Losing a loved one is among the most challenging things anyone will ever have to experience. In some cultures, families pay tribute to their deceased loved ones by remembering them on their “death anniversary.” Still, when honoring the anniversary of someone’s death, is it correct to say, “death anniversary”?
“Death anniversary” is not a common phrase most English speakers use. Instead, you are more likely to see or hear someone mention the anniversary of someone’s death. Although it is not grammatically incorrect, American English-speakers are likely to find the expression odd since we tend to associate an “anniversary” with positive emotion and death with negative emotion.
Still, there are religious and ethnic groups within English-speaking cultures that recognize some sort of commemoration of a loved one’s death. This article will cover some of those cultural contexts while providing alternative expressions for “death anniversary.”
What Does a “Death Anniversary” Mean?
A death anniversary is an observance of the date when a family member or significant other died in a previous year (source). Some have referred to a death anniversary as a “deathday,” a word originating in English prior to the 12th century, according to Merriam-Webster (source).
The Old English word for a death anniversary or “deathday” was “dēaðdæg” or “dēaþ-dæg,” which we can find in the legend of Beowulf (source). However, Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary does not list “deathday,” a recent addition to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.
A “deathday” could refer merely to the day of someone’s death or to a commemoration of their death.
In the case of “death anniversary,” “death” functions as a pre-modifier or noun adjunct, which means that it is a noun modifying the noun it precedes. The noun “anniversary” is a countable noun that indicates a day to remember or celebrate an meaningful event that happened on that day in a previous year (source).
“Anniversary” originated from Medieval Latin “anniversarium,” which came from the Latin for “year” (annus) and the past participle form of “to turn” (versus). Together, they form a compound meaning “returning annually” (source).
Catholics began using the word “anniversary” in Middle English to remember saints’ days or to commemorate a person’s death as “anniversaria dies.” The Old English word for “anniversary” was “mynddæg” or mind-day, indicating a day of remembrance.
Is It Grammatically Correct to Say “Death Anniversary”?
It’s not grammatically incorrect to say “death anniversary” because “death” is a noun adjunct modifying the noun “anniversary.” However, although it is grammatically correct, the phrase “death anniversary” is uncommon and unfamiliar to most English speakers primarily due to the influence of Protestantism.
The more common expression in English would be “The anniversary of ____’s death” (source). You will often see this in newspaper headings mentioning the anniversary of someone’s death.
When Not to Use “Death Anniversary”
Since “death” expresses a negative emotion, you usually shouldn’t use “death anniversary” to show positive sentiment.
The general English perception of death is as a sad point in people’s lives, while we generally associate anniversaries with celebrations of notable events like a wedding anniversary.
Is It Correct to Say “Happy Death Anniversary”?
It’s not appropriate to wish someone a “happy death anniversary” because it sounds very cliche and cheery. Also, using the adjective “happy” in the phrase indicates a lack of sympathy for a grieving individual in most English-speaking cultures.
Because “happy” has such a positive connotation, it changes the tone of the phrase “death anniversary,” and others can easily misread your intent. You do not want to imply you are celebrating the fact that someone has died.
In What Context Can You Use “Death Anniversary”?
It’s best to use “death anniversary” in a cultural context where they honor recently deceased loved ones. In each culture, families have their own beliefs about what happens in the afterlife, and some cultures have ongoing rituals or ceremonies to honor a loved one’s death anniversary.
The Perception of Death Anniversaries by Other Cultures
It is customary to observe death anniversaries of family members in Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Korean, and Vietnamese cultures. It’s also a Roman Catholic tradition to celebrate a mass for a loved one’s death anniversary.
Various Asian cultures, in particular, observe death anniversaries differently with their own rituals or ceremonies.
In China, for example, the term for “death anniversary” is either jìchén (忌辰) or jìrì (忌日), and there are different ways Chinese people honor the death of their loved ones.
For example, the family member(s) brings meat, snacks, desserts, drinks, and fruits to the gravesite on the person’s death anniversary. In addition, they burn paper money or anything they think the deceased person can use in the afterlife.
There is also a Chinese holiday called “Tomb-Sweeping Day,” where people honor their deceased relatives and friends by removing the weeds and waste around the grave.
In India, they call the first death anniversary “shraddha.” Shraddha is an all-male ceremony they perform for a deceased father, grandfather, great-grandfather, mother, grandmother, or great-grandmother.
Latin American Culture
In Latin American culture, people tend not to make death anniversaries a somber occasion. Instead, their way to remember the deceased is by celebrating their legacy.
Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — is a two-day celebration on November 1st and November 2nd to honor the dead by having a festival (source). Many Latin Americans believe dead souls return to the physical world to engage in celebrations with their loved ones on the Day of the Dead.
The tradition originated in Mexico based on Aztec rituals where they hosted festivals to honor those who passed on.
When the Spanish took control of the Aztec empire, their Catholic views influenced the celebration of the Day of the Dead on two days: November 1st (All Saints Day) and November 2nd (All Souls Day).
The Day of the Dead festivities consist of enjoying food, drinks, and activities the deceased once enjoyed in the physical world. The skulls and skeletons are seen everywhere in fancy clothing, entertainment, candies, and parade masks.
Many Catholics commemorate the death of a loved one through an anniversary mass (source). Priest conduct anniversary masses at churches or local parishes in which they say a prayer for the family in honor of their loved one’s passing.
Although anniversary masses may not happen every year on the exact date of a person’s death, some families or churches may have other ways to connect with their loved ones in the afterlife spiritually.
This is one form of Requiem Mass held for the deceased (source). A requiem is a Catholic religious ceremony for a dead person. Requiem originates from the first word of the Introit, the first part of a traditional mass where they play music at the beginning of the service.
Requiem masses were often celebrated days after a person’s death or from the day of the funeral. Masses celebrated on the third and seventh day were often privileged because of Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the third day.
Masses celebrated one month after a person’s death were also known as a Month’s Mind (source).
In contrast, cultures heavily influenced by Protestantism are less likely to accept the observance of a death anniversary or even to be familiar with the concept.
How Do You Mention a Death Anniversary?
The most common expression used to mention a death anniversary is “The anniversary of ___ death.”
Still, since most English-speaking families are unfamiliar with the concept of a death anniversary, how would you mention a death anniversary without coming across as insensitive or rude? In other words, what is the best way to use the term “death anniversary” in a sentence?
How Do You Use “Death Anniversary”?
You can use “death anniversary” whenever you are, in fact, mentioning the actual date of someone’s death, especially if you are announcing it at a memorial service.
English-speakers from Asian cultures like China and India are, perhaps, most likely to use “death anniversary,” translating a familiar concept into English.
To add, “death anniversary” in other English-speaking cultures describes the actual event (prayer, ceremony, festival) that occurs to commemorate a person’s death.
When Can You Use “Death Anniversary”?
Those who use the expression do so when they wish to acknowledge the loss on the anniversary of a loved one’s passing.
Those who would prefer not to use “death anniversary” might instead say comforting words to support their friend or family member during such a time of remembrance.
- Today is the death anniversary of our dear mother.
- Today marks one year since we lost John, and he is truly missed.
- Words can’t express how much we miss John since he’s been gone.
Using “Death Anniversary” in a Full Sentence
Typically, one might place “death anniversary” in the middle of a sentence. The phrase usually describes an event since families are attending a ceremony to honor the deceased.
- Today marks the first death anniversary of my elder grandmother.
What Can You Use Instead of “Death Anniversary”?
You may feel as though saying “death anniversary” sounds inappropriate or a bit harsh to someone grieving the loss of their loved one. In that case, there are other ways for you to express the anniversary of a loved one’s death.
What Is the Right Word for “Death Anniversary”?
English speakers may use an expression referring to a “remembrance,” “tribute,” or “commemoration.”
Although “deathday” is another way to say “death anniversary” in English, there are alternative synonyms for “death anniversary” to choose from that may be more appropriate.
A Day of Remembrance
The phrase “a day of remembrance” is a common alternative to “death anniversary.” A remembrance involves calling to mind someone or something and can refer to a commemoration or memorial.
In fact, there is an actual holiday observed in Canada called Remembrance Day. On November 11th, Canadians use this day to honor armed forces members that died in the First World War. Remembrance Day is also known as “Armistice Day” or “Poppy Day” in Canada (source).
In the United States, Americans observe “Armistice Day’ or “Veterans Day” for the same reason.
A commemoration is an event where people remember and honor a deceased individual (source). If you are gathering an event to honor your loved one, then using the verb “commemorate” will be appropriate to use in this case.
- On October 5th, we commemorate our elderly grandmother, who has passed on.
If you want to show respect to your deceased loved one through a gift or service, you may want to use the phrase “paying tribute.” For example, families will pay tribute to their loved ones on their anniversary by writing a eulogy, starting a fundraiser, or creating a memorial website to honor them.
You can refer to an “observance” instead of a “death anniversary” in remembrance of a loved one’s death.
- Today we honor the life of our late father in observance of his passing.
For additional ways to express sympathy to a friend who is grieving, take a look at this article: “Is It Correct to Say, ‘Accept My Condolences’?” or “Which is Correct ‘Passed Away’ or ‘Passed On’?”
The Difference Between Connotation and Denotation
Denotation is the literal meaning of a word, while connotation is the implication or nuance that goes beyond the simple definition. Connotation is the emotion we associate with a word, whether positive, negative, or neutral (source).
For example, the literal meaning (denotation) of “death” and “dead” is “the ending of life.” However, the connotation is generally negative.
Meanwhile, the nouns “anniversary” and “annual” simply denote “occurring yearly.” Yet the connotations behind the word “anniversary” are generally positive and carry the positive feeling of celebration and happiness. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
In contrast, “annual” bears the neutral connotation of something happening once a year, like an “annual meeting.” Perhaps a “death annual” would be a more neutral phrase, but, again, it sounds strange to the ears of most English speakers.
It is not grammatically wrong to say “death anniversary”; however, many will find the association of “death” with an “anniversary” to be somewhat confusing. You can find the word “deathday” in Merriam-Webster, and English-Speaking Catholics may observe an anniversary mass, requiem, or Month’s Mind.