Acceptance, Fear, or Denial. Perception of Death and Dying Throughout History

Is death a natural part of life’s cycle, or something to fear and even to deny? Is the way we express our grief a personal matter or is it influenced by the society? The aim of this essay is to demonstrate that even such inevitable and permanent fact as human mortality can be met in various different ways and approach to it is dependent on historical period that we live in. Moreover, present approach to death and dying is not very supportive to those whose time is nearing to an end. Constant denial of death in today’s society leaves person alone to face the most fearsome yet inevitable final adventure of one’s life. An insight to historical changes of attitudes towards death can provide a better awareness of flexibility of social norms and what forces play role in formation of those norms. This understanding is often liberating in terms of developing your own views and critical approach towards what is called the norm.

Bosch. Death of the Reprobate

Historical perception of death in this article is based on Philippe Aries studies on Western cultural history (1975. “Essais sur l'histoire de la mort en Occident: du Moyen Âge à nos jours”; 1977. “L'Homme devant la mort” ). Ph. Aries is one of the most prominent French historians, despite the fact that he did not have Phd in history, and did not belong to academic circles. He did his historical research on spare time left from a day job in a tropical fruit trading company. Only in the last years of his life Ph. Aries had engaged himself in teaching at the School of Social Sciences in Paris. He is a pioneer of historical research of attitudes towards childhood and death. In his work Ph. Aries demonstrated that those concepts are objects of historicity and historical change. His research is based on an overview of cemeteries’ history in major cities, documents of last will, funding of the Holy Mass, literary, archaeological, liturgical resources, biographies, letters, iconography of death. Ph. Aries distinguishes five different attitudes towards death throughout human history. However the chronology is not absolutely clear, because most of the major perceptional stages overlap.

Bruegel. The Triumph of Death

I Tamed Death

The first stage covers a period from most archaic times to 19th century. At this stage the death was considered natural and inevitable, but not an object of extreme fear. It was believed that "balancing sheet is closed not at the moment of death but on the last day of the world."
To describe a period of “tamed death” Ph. Aries relies on data provided by French heroic poems. The scenes of heroes’ death described in poems reflect awareness of one’s mortality and peaceful surrender to the fact. Author also analyses more recent literary masterpieces depicting behavior of actors in the face of death such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, L. Tolstoy's works. The common routine of meeting death includes words of farewell to relatives, short recollection of one’s life and absolution from the priest.
Although initially burying in urban area was prohibited, this did not last for long, mainly because cities were expanding rapidly and suburbs became a part of them as well. Another reason was the desire to be buried as close as possible to the holy martyrs whose remains were buried in churches. Thus gradually the custom of burial inside the church and the surrounding area arose.
Interestingly, the individual graves, as it is now, were uncommon until late sixteenth and seventeenth century, the exact place of burial was not very important as well. The fact clearly reveals community-oriented personal identity that was dominant in this epoch. An individual was considered an integral part of the community and not isolated both in this life and after death. The responsibility for one’s sins was rather divided as well. Strong bond with the other members of community as well as strong religious beliefs resulted in people fearing death less.
Blurred borders between life and death can be illustrated by the fact, that cemeteries were also used as market place and a space for public performances. Ph. Aries notes that although already in 1231 in Rouen’s meeting prohibited dancing, play games, juggler, and musical performances in cemeteries, this was a common practice until the end of the seventeenth century.

II My Death

Concept of “my death” developed in 11-13th centuries together with idea of facing individual judgment right after one’s death.
According to Ph. Aries this period did not bring a major shift in perception of death, but held the subtle changes that made the fact of death more personal and dramatic. The reckoning for one’s sins in front of God becomes more individual as well. Meeting death plays an important role: a dying person is expected not to fall into temptation to lament his earthly possessions or to be proud of his good deeds. It was thought that the posture in the face of death itself can add points to one’s heavenly account. Rites performed at the deathbed remain the same, but funeral customs are modified under influence of rise of individual values. Starting with 12th century epitaphs on the tombstones already appear. However at a time they are present only in cases of kings and saints. The noble men were usually honored with tables attached to the church walls. Such tables held records about charity distributed by the deceased.

Ménageot. The death of Leonardo

III Close and Distant Death

The phase of “close and distant” death according to Ph.Aries started approximately with Renaissance and lasted until 17th century. This is an intermediate phase between natural acceptance and fear of death. The emphasis shifts from behavior in the moment of death to good and bad deeds of a lifetime. A custom to bury members of a family together displaces aspirations of final rest near graves of saints. A wish to reunite with the family is so strong that it even overcomes hostility between Catholics and Protestants. Although reluctant to even stop by Catholic churches, Protestants insisted to be buried in the old burial sites, arguing that it is their "parents' cemetery." Mourning customs are strictly defined and regulated; family of a deceased must wear particular mourning clothes. Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to show emotions openly. Those who could not return to normal life and were mourning the dead too long were forced to withdraw from society in the monastery, or to leave town to find solitude in the countryside. However inscriptions on the tombstone become increasingly emotional.

IV Your Death

The shift of focus from one’s own death to the death of his beloved in 18th century is associated with emergence of more sentimental relationship inside the family. Parting with dying relative and mourning becomes extremely emotional and expressive. This new approach served as an inspiration for cemetery cult which had emerged in 19th -20th centuries. The growth of importance of attending graves is illustrated by the fact that intention to eliminate the Paris cemetery in 19th century was met with vigorous resistance of the society. The grave is considered a property of the family and exact place of it becomes exceedingly significant as well.

Esthetics of death in James Bond film Goldfinger

V Invisible Death

The era of “invisible death” started in the beginning of the 20th century and in many respects we are still facing it today. This period is characterized by refusal of mourning in order to avoid the subject of death. The place of dying is no longer one’s home, but a hospital. Basically the whole process of death and burial is given into medical and burial office’s staff’s hands. Excessive mourning becomes indecent. Cremation is an example of a radical ambition to destroy everything that reminds of death and prevent encountering the thoughts of death in everyday experience. Secularization of society did not provide an alternative to comfort given by religion. The only way to deal with terror of death that the society has found was denying its very existence. Moreover the paradigm of constant progress originated from natural sciences did not leave a place for death, which has been immune to any progress so far. Having no means to fight death society chose the path of elimination of the topic from public discourse.
However hiding heads in the sand did not make death disappear. Furthermore, no support from the society in facing death leaves a person isolated and makes it more terrifying than ever before. Ironically the values of extreme individualism covering most of aspects of life such as marriage or professional life, are not applied to meeting one’s death. A dying person is connected to a plethora of tubes and wires and is expected to fight for his life, and never let anybody know that there is no hope for getting well. The terminally ill have no chance to peacefully prepare to die, because “not fighting”, “not believing” and “not having hope” are considered to be an insult to the society who knows no death.
The same can be applied to the mourning relatives as well. We cannot find the words of comfort and being in the presence of loss becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Thus relatives of the deceased often become isolated or are forced to hide their grief. Fortunately the awareness of the problem is already increasing and various religious or secular organizations are offering help to people diagnosed with incurable diseases. A simple conversation sometimes helps a lot. However to reduce alienation, a general change of perception of death in the society is necessary.

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Comments 3 comments

Spirit Whisperer profile image

Spirit Whisperer 5 years ago from Isle of Man

A deep and comprehensive treatment of something that affects us all. I was only last night watching a programme about how badly the elderly are cared for in NHS hospitals nowadays and it bore out what you say about how attitudes toward death change each generation and reflect social norms. Thank you.


Green Wasabi profile image

Green Wasabi 5 years ago Author

Thank you for your comment. Attitudes towards elderly and aging is also an interesting topic. It seems that today's society is totally obsessed with beauty and youth.


Bitingtruths profile image

Bitingtruths 5 years ago from Mumbai

Hi,

It's a well written essay. I too have pondered on this subject. It's a fact of life that not all people die in same way. I think that's what makes death so interesting, because we always wonder how we are gonna die.

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