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The Anthropology of Death: from The Past to The Present

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According to Emile Durkheim religion refers to unified beliefs and practices which unite in one simple moral community. Under religion, my main topic is focused on death. In physiological terms death means all will die either early, late, or accidental that’s why death proves that life’s uncertain. A researcher like Durkheim who study religion proves by conducting various fieldwork that every society has a religion that can explain and have a different perception of death. Anthropology is the study of people and its culture. When it comes to looking at death anthropology seeks to learn and explore how the past and present societies respond to death. Death is considered important in the field of anthropology as human beings have to face death and researcher is trying to understand how different groups of society encounter death and their attitude towards death. Therefore, the following paragraph is about the historical description of death and the author’s perspective towards the death.

The beliefs and religious practices of death have drastically changed in human history. This can be explained in modern times when death at a young age has declined due to advanced medical practice. This medical practice has played a beneficial role in the lives of human beings perhaps their attitude towards death has changed. This can be understood when one particular person suffers from a disease and finally got cured with the help of the medical treatments can make another person feel that there is no chance at dying early. Consequently in primitive times the process of dying or encountering death appears painful and frequent as many of the ancient societies feared of death because they have a common belief that death is unnatural and coincidental. On the other hand, one society fears death whereas other societies had no fear rather they overcome death. The particular societies perceive and manipulate death not as an end of life rather our body leaves the world but the soul takes rebirth in various forms be it the animal world or the human world. Moreover, their perception towards death has changed and it can be understood that human beings accepted death as collective destiny which means the feelings and situations that they have about death are probably shared within a group of people. They were concerned about their own death as well as it creates social awareness of others’ death.

Philippe Aries argues that the modern hospital is an ‘’absolutely new type of dying’’.This can be explained in relation to the past and present where people fully lost their control over their deaths. Thousands of years ago, death was a moment where all the deceased family members embrace the positive aspects of caregiving respecting each other’s feelings and emotions, and consider best spent with friends and family. Before the deceased departure, he or she will give positive life advice and orders. However, in the modern era, the death of news has been the least concern as it became a moment of machine that kept dying in ignorance of their condition, in the sterile room from the public’s attention. During those times death was focused more on the community where everything has been shared. Now the focus of death is on the personal one. The author argued during the early Christian century to the middle ages the pledge of eternity has shaped the consideration of death whereas in the Middle Age due to modernization of culture it eventually leads to a decline in the pledge of eternity.

Death can be encountered when the heartbeat and brainstem is no longer functioning. When it comes to twenty first century progresses there is complications between life and death not just in terms of social and religious understanding but also through technological advancement. From the social and religious perspective, people consider the cause of death as a part of life, committing suicide or having different circumstances however from the technological advancement view death is caused due to an increase in blood pressure or suffering from different kinds of disease. So, there are different kinds of outcomes when it comes to different perspective of death. Death is complicated and difficult to understand when it comes to humanities and social sciences at the same time there is a general agreement between different disciplines. For instance, philosophy or psychology focuses on the themes and explanations of a various topics whereas anthropologists focus on the various social-cultural and religious practices that mediate death and maintain the continuity of a social group. Most importantly anthropological approaches tend to understand people’s beliefs and practices that shape and understand life and respond to death. Correspondingly when the individual people die the society and the culture handles the moral perspective between generations and understanding of how the death is discussed through cultural traditions and religious practice.

According to Philippe Aries, the western historical perspective towards death can be understood into four historical phases. The first one is known as ‘tame death’ which means death is part of life and it’s natural. Death was a communal event which means all the family members or friends will sit near the dying person. The second phase is ‘one’s own death’ which means living and dying becomes one’s own experience. In the third phase Aries describes death as ‘Thy Death’ explaining that death is dramatized by literature and art by conducting rituals and mourning the death. Finally the third phase at the beginning of twenty century refers to ‘forbidden death’ which means death is connected to unpleasant emotion. Thus, medical advancement displaces many cultural beliefs that are associated with religion. When a medical advancement fails to heal a body an individual is left without knowledge of spirituality to cope up with this is because of the domination of modern technology. Today death is often experienced in hospital. In such situation social agreements are the ones who deal with the issue of death.

On the other hand, Robert Bluaner argues death as a biological that strongly affects every human society. He compares premodern death society with industrial society. This further explains that in industrial society there is a large scale of production of goods and services. However, migration leads to the breakdown of agriculture and maintains a distance between family members. As a result, the author is trying to argue that industrial societies results to death in modern life. He also argues death is like a retiring job which means people who retire from the job are more likely to die because of old age and health conditions. Both of the authors have a different perspective about where Aris talks about the historical perspective of the death and on one side Bluaner relates death to industrial.

In conclusion historical description is important in the field of anthropology as it provides and understands the history, changes and theory of a particular topic. Gradually My essay includes the historical description of death in the past and how it has changed in the modern era followed by arguments of different scholar.


  1. Aries, philippe. ”The hour of our death” 1982.–ffn-sectitle.
  2. Blauner, Robert. ‘Death and Social Structure.’ november 7, 2016. (accessed 1966).
  3. Filippo, David San.”Historical Perspective on Attitudes Concerning Death and Dying” january 2006.faculty publication 29 https://digital
  4. Irving, Andrew. ”The Art of Life And Death”: Radical Aesthetics And Ethnographic Practise. Edited by Giovanni da Col. chicago: Chicago Distribution centre, 2017.
  5. simpson, Bob. ‘Death”: The cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology.’ 2018.

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