Today most people die in a hospital bed, though many would prefer to die in their own home being watched over by their loving family.

We have an old saying, “to die on a tatami mat”, meaning to die peacefully in one’s own home — as opposed to dying miserably and bedridden in a hospital while being distressed by the presence of tubes supplying oxygen and nutrients as if one was trussed up with some sort of monstrous spaghetti.

For reference, tatami is a floor mat made of woven rush which you may find in most Japanese houses. (The size of a room is quantified in terms of the number of tatamis, e.g. a 6-tatami room or a 12-tatami room.)

“To die on a tatami mat” originally meant “to end a peaceful life” without being subjected to such perils as war, fighting, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons as are rife in this country. By extension, we call a reckless person “a fellow who is unable to die on a tatami mat.”

I associate “aging in place”, a term which I understand is current these days, with “dying on a tatami mat.” But the connotation is not the same.

Are there any English-language expressions that are similar to the Japanese saying “I want to die on a tatami mat”?

  • 1
    Please check my edits to ensure they still convey your intended meaning. – Erik Kowal Feb 15 '15 at 11:27
  • As suggested to die in one's bed or at home is often used to convey the idea; a wish that is increasing: "As many as 74pc say their want their last weeks and days in the familiar surroundings of their own home, up from 67pc who were asked the same question in a similar poll 10 years ago".independent.ie/irish-news/health/… – user66974 Feb 15 '15 at 11:38
  • 1
    @Erick Kowal.Thanks a lot. It became much clearer, refined, and grammatically. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 15 '15 at 11:54
  • 3
    Somewhat opposite of the earlier meaning is to die with your boots on meaning to die while fighting, struggling, or working hard, but not peacefully at home in bed. – bib Feb 15 '15 at 13:28
  • 11
    I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car. – Hot Licks Feb 15 '15 at 13:31
up vote 34 down vote accepted

Different cultures are often difficult to map to each other, but the most likely equivalent is die in my own bed.

Agosto, I want to die in my own bed, in my own house.

Succession, Joyce Carlow

“I am doing nothing wrong. We are not breaking the law,” she said. “What alternative do I have? The other methods, to my knowledge, are either illegal or I would need to go to [the Dignitas clinic in] Switzerland, and I want to die in my own bed.”

Guardian 19 October 2014, quoting Jean Davies who committed suicide by starvation.

I saw you could live and furnish with grace
Even a lion's den, if you've no other place.
I don't even mind to die alone, to be dead,
But I want to die in My own bed.

I want to die in my own bed, Yehuda Amichai, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav

I can't think of an idiom off-hand, or a proverb which conveys the same delicacy of meaning as the Japanese “die on a tatami mat”. The nearest I came up with are: to die at home and to die peacefully.

The phrase to die at home expresses the desire to die in one's home surrounded (possibly) by family and friends, in the comfort of one's own bed. It is the idea of dying alone, without dignity, in a strange room, i.e. a hospital ward, and with strangers caring for you that many dying people wish to avoid.

When asked where they want to die, most people of all ages would prefer to die at home; in one study, over three times as many elderly wanted to die at home as wanted to die in a hospital (Kalish and Reynolds, 1976).

Aging and the Social Sciences

The second phrase, to die peacefully expresses the wish to die painlessly. Many will also say: I want to die peacefully in my sleep.

"All I want is for my mother to die peacefully here at home."

Hard Choices for Loving People

The phrase was used at King George V's death in 1952

His Majesty, King George VI, has died peacefully in his sleep at Sandringham House.

BBC On This Day

The top concern of the dying is that they do not want to be in pain – then that they do not want to be a burden and thirdly, that they do not want to be alone. The first and last of those are sometimes hard to achieve
The Guardian

Google Ngram enter image description here

  • @Mari-Lou A.I noticed that incidences of both “to die at home” and “to die peacefully” are on continued increase on Google Ngram. The incidence of “to die at home” is particularly soaring up since around 1970. Do you see any reason or social background to account for the sharp rise of usage of “to die at home,” for example, the shift in public consciousness of health-care, aging society, and quality of life. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 16 '15 at 8:07
  • 1
    @YoichiOishi I would imagine the peak is related to the increase number of the elderly and their primary reluctance or aversion to die in hospital. There is also a growing awareness of this problem called "assisted dying", especially in the media, and many are concerned about the care which terminable ill patients receive in hospital. Many patients are demanding the right to die at home, and there have been several surveys and studies published recently on this. The Guardian link which I posted has some very interesting observations on the subject. – Mari-Lou A Feb 16 '15 at 12:24
  • A possible pop culture influence -- lyrics to "The Gambler": Every gambler knows That the secret to survivin' Is knowin' what to throw away And knowin' what to keep 'Cause every hand's a winner And every hand's a loser And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep – Jim Mack Feb 16 '15 at 17:07

It's abstract compared to the physical setting of the mat or bed, and there is debate about what it might entail, but I think it is pertinent as a complement:

To die on one's own terms.

So it's the verb to die and this idiom(see this question); Merriam-Webster says of on one's own terms:

in accordance with one's wishes : in one's own way < prefers to live on his own terms >

The debate has extended to the manner and time of the passing as well as the place, especially in the context of (degenerative)illness - which is not about old age. But the terms reflect, just like with living, the idea of the freedom and the choice it affords; it's about dignity and nurturing independence, autonomy for as long as possible in the environment of the person's own choosing, and ultimately choice for the human being in the later or final moments of their life. The meaning the person gives to life must also prevail in death, and there is awareness about how the caring must be guided by that. The chosen terms may vary with the individual, their traditions, beliefs etc..1


1. I found the following about the less fortunate scenario of illness. I did not know this person but it is a privilege to share what I read. The late Mr Eric Hampton was a choreographer and ballet instructor from Washington. He was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 1997; from what I understand the in-patient unit at Washington Home & Hospice cared for Mr Hampton in the last 2 years of his life when staying home was no longer an option because of the seriousness of his condition. Mr Hampton could no longer talk and used blinking with a plexiglass board with clusters of letters to express his thoughts(a long, and sometimes frustrating process no doubt) - until his death in 2001, age 54, almost 15 years ago. In his last year, Mr Hampton wrote a small diary for 4 weeks. I believe it is insightful so I reproduce in full his last entry from the week of July 3rd, 2000 with no further comments:

When I had to leave my apartment to come and live at the Home, I was bawling like a baby. To face another night without my darling Bruce, my brother, would be another night in hell. Of course, Gemima, my private nurse who stayed with me all through the night for a week, was a godsend.

I loved my old apartment. It had gone through so many changes. This last incarnation I liked the best. It had a sand-colored carpet and a linen sofa with matching chair. I had hung many photographs of my career and my company's career. I cooked some of my best meals for my friends at 1884 Columbia Road. Everyone was in the neighborhood. Butterflied rack of lamb, grilled vegetables, poached pears in red wine sauce. I loved my life there: dancing, teaching, choreographing, lovemaking, and entertaining. I had the most spectacular view of Washington and the monument. I loved my life.

from the diary of Mr Eric Hampton - 2000

In my country we have the old saying "may it be a clean departure"; clean departure i.e clean death which has the following connotations: to die peacefully on one's own private place, to have a short dying without prolonged suffering, not to die in an accident, to die whilst you can relieve yourself and clean without the help of others and finally to die with a clean name and a clean reputation.

The opposite meaning is to "die with my boots on". So you could say "I don't want to die with my boots on", or "I'd like to die with my boots off". This is VERY uncommon usage, and other suggestions here are better, though.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=died+with+his+boots+on%2Cdie+with+his+boots+on%2Cdied+with+his+boots+off%2Cdie+with+his+boots+off&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15

  • 2
    I don't think that's opposite in the way explained by OP - it doesn't mean one would die in a hospital either. It would be a third case; 1) in agony at a hospital, 2) peacefully at home, 3) busy doing something – eis Feb 16 '15 at 9:54
  • Technically, yes, having one's boots off can include a death by drowning, a heart attack while bowling, getting shot by a mugger who first stole your boots, and any number of other deaths. But that's not what the phrase -- uncommon though it is -- is usually intended or taken to mean, though. – Dewi Morgan Feb 17 '15 at 0:22

To my mind, the opposite of dying with monstrous spaghetti-like strands of tubing inserted in one's trachea and attached to one's arms and chest in an effort to prolong one's life to the farthest limit scientifically possible is to die naturally. A Google Books search for die naturally returns "about 19,300 matches," encompassing a wide range of ideas about what the term means. However, a number of matches take the view expressed in David Kundiff, Euthanasia Is Not the Answer: A Hospice Physician's View (2012):

Euthanasia or "active euthanasia" is often confused with allowing the terminally ill person to die naturally of the disease. Allowing an individual to die means foregoing or stopping medical treatments intended to prolong life. For example, a terminally ill person on a respirator (breathing machine) in an intensive care ward may request that the machine be turned off and that he or she be allowed to die. The discontinuation of life support technology when any realistic hope of recovery has completely vanished is a legal, ethical, and appropriate act also known as passive euthanasia.

And likewise in Marlaine Smith, Marian Tucker & Zane Wolf, Caring in Nursing Classics: An Essential Resource (2012):

As our results showed, the participants were concerned about not allowing older patients die, as one explained: "It often happens that very old patients aren't allowed to die." They also believed that patients should "die peacefully and with dignity,” but ”to die naturally in the ICU is not allowed.” One believed that ”it is a respect for life to be allowed to die” when it is time.

In other words, by this thinking, "to die naturally" is the opposite of "to be kept alive by [medically] heroic measures." Admittedly, even the most compassionate and professionally managed hospital or hospice environment can't match the familiarity of one's own bed; so in that respect, "to die naturally" doesn't evoke the same homely image as “to die on a tatami mat.” But it is nevertheless an expression of dying on one's own terms, without becoming an experimental object in what sometimes plays out as if it were simply a struggle between impending death and medical ingenuity, with no concern for the idea of the patient as an interested party in the proceedings.

' to die on a tatami mat' as far as I know doesn't mean to die at home or peacefully. It means to fight and persist until the last breath. It means not giving up until last moment of life. It means preferring dying in battlefield rather than being alive but defeated.

  • 1
    Not really. No Japanese use 'to die on a tatami mat' in the way as you describe. "Daijirin -大辞林”、one of the most reputable Japanese language dictionanries published by Sanseido Inc. has a heading of '畳の上で死ぬ -to die on a tatami mat' and defines it as "事故などで不慮の死を遂げるのではなくて、家で穏やかに死ぬ” meaning 'to die peacefully at home, not dying 'unwillingly' out of home (by accident, fight, natural desasters, and so on).' as I wrote in my question. Use of tatami for Taekwondo is just incidental. It's being used for the floor of tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and zen meditation, all very peaceful exercises. – Yoichi Oishi Feb 18 '15 at 21:34

To die, looking out the window into my garden while fondling the ears of my dog. I think someone wrote that once in a book, and that is my ideal.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.