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The history of death: can we tame death again?

How our perception of death is culturally and socially constructed.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard
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When in high school I read a book, The History of Death in Occident, by Philippe Aries where he studies how death has been perceived and "practiced" in Occident from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. This made me realized at the time how death was a socially and constructed phenomenon. I think it is an important assumption to remember as we engage in this challenge as it might allow us to challenge some of our assumptions but also be curious about other ways of thinking about death. 

I have only the French version of Aries' book but I found this review in the NY Times that highlights the main points by Aries. Here are a few quotes that highlights the key points from the book:

1.  Death practices are intrinsically humane and reflect a connection of the individuals to the community.

"MAN is the only species to bury his dead. Of the recurrent crises of the human condition - birth, marriage and death - it is death that has generated the largest number of rituals, most of them based on a belief in an afterlife. It is as though an instinctive disposition exists in man to reject the thought of death as definitive, as the completion of the life cycle. Whether we leave food, clothing and implements in the burial place - as people have as far back as the Paleolithic Age - or simply offer prayers at graveside, the premise is the same: The community that nourished in life must also nourish in death. Death takes place within the community; death is a wound to the community; death is a departure from the community. That is a fair way of epitomizing the significance that death has had in all the great world religions."

2. Things changed in the 20th century:

when "significant counterforces began to operate in the West. For many thousands of years, death, funerary and mourning rites were not very different in the West from those that had existed everywhere in human society; the power of the community was unchallenged in matters of death as well as birth and marriage. But in our century, Mr. Aries argues, there has been an ''abdication of the community'' from death; death is left to an ''enormous mass of atomized individuals''; death has become an increasing solitary, almost ''invisible'' phenomenon.""

Death, which was part of everyday life, has been pushed away - with shame and fear.

3. In Middle Ages 

"medieval society did not lavish as much attention upon the corpse and its disposition as does our own. Graves were so small that bodies had to be bent and twisted to fit; moreover, graves were used and reused, old bones moved elsewhere, usually to a charnel house, where they had to make their own liaisons. Communal graves, especially after plagues, were not uncommon. But in death itself, for the person who was dying and for those around him, even the children, ritual and attitude combined in very evident devotion. Through Mr. Aries's exhaustive research, we can see a society in which death could come to be as natural a part of life as birth and marriage. To be sure, deaths were frequent in any medieval family, the death of children especially, but it was less the frequency than the communality and the openness of dying and death that gave death its ''tamed'' quality in Mr. Aries's judgment."

4. In the 19th century:

"In four arresting chapters on the 19th century we are treated to the efforts to rationalize death, in technology and thought, while at the same time, death is subjected to the tidal currents of romanticism, with dying, death and mourning rites frequently awash in a sentimentality not easily comprehended in our time (or earlier, for that matter). The chapter on ''The Age of the Beautiful Death'' is a small masterpiece, and one can understand from it how even so great a writer as Dickens could become mired in scenes exemplified by the death of Little Nell in ''The Old Curiosity Shop.'' To die beautifully, in a novel, poem, opera, wherever, was clearly an idee fixe of the century, and life tended to follow art, as is evident from letters, diaries and other commentaries in which any disagreeable aspects of the deathbed are consigned to oblivion, and we read only of the beautiful emotions of love, tenderness, forgiveness, happiness shared by all amid tears and smiles and the holding of hands"

5. In the 20th Century,

"The essence of this ''new'' death is invisibility, a desire for death to retreat from the family and to be confined to hospitals and, increasingly, to the family surrogates we call hospices. Mr. Aries notes the paradox of efforts, on the one hand, to make death ''obscene'' in polite company (as sex was in the Victorian age) but, on the other hand, to control it through the current deluge of books, articles and television documentaries on death and dying. Death shown out through the front door will inevitably return through the window, Mr. Aries writes. He comments on the impact of medical technology on death and dying, an impact whose size and intensity are only slowly being revealed in the law courts (as in the case of Karen Ann Quinlan), in the conferences on bioethics, in the churches and in newspaper columns. We are taken through funeral ''parlors'' and ''homes'' and other repositories, physical and psychological, of the dying and the dead. Twentieth-century death - for Mr. Aries at least - has become steadily ''wilder''; the primal ''savagery'' of death has returned; death, for so long ''tamed,'' has in this age become ''untamed.''"

6.  Aries shows that in the past, people through rituals and mores had been able to "tame death, and that in recent times, although it could seem more tamed because of technology, medicine, etc., it is in fact "untamed". 

"Will it be tamed again? Mr. Aries acknowledges the work of such pioneers as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the hospices, the medical profession's increasing awareness of its obligations to the process of dying as well as to health, and the ministrations of psychologists and other specialists and researchers. Such efforts, Mr. Aries concludes, are attempts to humanize death; he pays tribute to the benign motives of most of those for whom death has become a field of study in our century..."

This challenge can be seen as a collective attempt to tame death again...

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

What can we learn from other cultures and times? Can we tame death again? Can we humanize it?


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chandra Shekhar

Photo of Justin Magnuson, MA, LMT

I would not have thought to use the word tame, but making it "not dangerous or frightening" seems to fit. I've been thinking about the meaning making behind the dying process and death. I wonder if the pluralism of our modern culture is part of the problem? 

I definitely don't want to go back to a plague ridden middle-ages, but having " communality and .. openness of dying and death" seems to be the way forward. How and where do we start? I guess the conversation is the beginning.

Are you familiar with Stephen Cave's work? His work on immortality narratives speaks to the idea of our quest to craft meaning out of the afterlife. 

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Justin for your comment. You might be right about "tame". I used it as this was the term used in the NY Times article. I also think that there is something worth exploring in the word as it is about taming our fear of end of life...

The idea is clearly not to "go back" but to understand some of the dimensions involved in our relation to death over time... Yet, one reason might be that in the Middle Ages (for example), death was more frequent and came earlier, and there was more a sense of fate. It reminds me also a point made by Katy in the article shared in her post  "Why don't we die the way we say we want to die? In part because we say we want good deaths but act as if we won't die at all."

I don't know Stephen Cave's work but I've checked his website and will definitely look more into his work. Thanks for sharing!

Photo of James (Gien) Wong

Death is certainly a quagmire for the human psyche. It is the innate paradox that creates and defines the basic tension of every human life, whether it is spoken about or not. On the one hand, we, like all other living species, have a strong survival instinct. On the other, we have an awareness of mortality. These two are in direct opposition to each other, hence setting the basic tension, the tragedy play of our life. The tragedy is the strongest narrative form we have to describe this situation. The late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker explored this in his Denial of Death and, as you point out in your writing, we create rituals and stories of an afterlife to deal with it. Becker speaks to this same tendency using the language of "symbolic person". The physical being dies and the symbolic being finds a way to continue itself on. In the Deep Humanity practice which our organization is developing, we apply a human lens to summarize the many esoteric traditions of humanity which seek to penetrate the propensity to eternalizing the symbolic. In particular, we explore contemplation and awareness itself, the biggest container of all, to try to develop a practice accessible to everyone that helps us to both understand life and come to peace with our physical death.