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The Evolution of Attitudes Towards Death Throughout History

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Modern society is deemed to adopt and outlook of ignorance pertaining to matters surrounding death. Many academics suggest that contemporary western society has evolved and transformed into one of ignorance and denial when looking at matters pertaining to death. Thus, creating much contention around “the claim that contemporary western society is death-denying is simplistic if not altogether false”. Through historical evaluation, the evolution of attitudes towards death become clear demonstrating new influential factors on the topic created through industrialisation and the rise of capitalism. Processes of commoditisation, individualism and medicalisation are all key elements to be explored when determining the extent of death denial within modern society (Calhoun et al. 2012).

In the past death was never seen to be inhibited and constrained as thoroughly as what is demonstrated on the surface of today’s society. Many believe that in society today the rejection of death is a core quality that centrally characterises and threatens the prosperity modern culture.

In previous eras death has been understood as an essential phase of life making it a futile effort to deny the inevitable. Philippe Aries (1914-1984) studied the historical evolution of perceptions about death throughout Western society. Concluding that there were four major periods with their own individual characteristics in defining humanity and its connections with death. Aries claims for two millennia concepts of death resisted pressures of evolution. In a world constantly progressing, the conventional outlook’s toward death were like an embankment of indolence and permanency. Hence, the first three periods spanning over one thousand years ago to the nineteenth century were considered similar with Aries recognising the linking parallels between them. Unlike the instantaneous development of the modern concept evolution of these other periods was a slow progression taking centuries to occur.

From the early Middle Ages, Aries established and titled his first period the ‘tame death’. During this time death was an accepted cost of living; people did not want to die but it was expected. Rituals were used to prepare for the inevitable, often making deaths a public occurrence involving the many rather than the few. The subsequent period; ‘One’s own death’, covers the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, ranging from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. This way of thinking was very similar to that of the first period. Rituals were conducted for comfort through the knowledge that a brief life that will come to an end through death. The main distinction came through beliefs of life’s value and that actions would be judged and hold influence over the afterlife. Death was now a time of awareness increasing appreciation of existence before demise. Established between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries the third period was titled ‘Thy Death’. Throughout this epoch the conceptualization of death began to radically modify moving on from one’s own death. Concern now revolved around the ‘other’, creating connections and relations with the dead (Kellehear 2008). There was a reluctance to let go of loved ones leaving a new air of emotion to surround death that had not previously been seen. Graves evolved and changed to allow for mourning thus moving the conception of death from the dying to those left behind, becoming a symbol to be clung to in the remnants of what was lost.

Finally, the fourth epoch is seen to dominate the twentieth century with its influences and ideals only continuing on to modern day. Aries defines such times believe that death is illicit and wild. Death is now so far removed from the personal experience that it is under societal control. Emerging through notions of risk management death has been silently eroded, dismissed and ignored to preserve societies’ sanctity of happiness and psychological wellbeing.

Aries establishes standards of cleanliness and sanitation that coincide with the ignorance of death brought through the protection of happiness. Illuminating that though “rapid advances in comfort, privacy, personal hygiene, and ideas about asepsis have made everyone more delicate. Our senses can no longer tolerate the sights and smells that in the early nineteenth century were part of daily life”. Death now has physical implications upon the body not only of the dying but those surrounding them. Feelings of repulsion and kind of disgusted shock-horror emanate around ideals of death as it is now experience as a grimy indecent occurrence when not happening within clinical settings of hospitals and homes etc. The 1930’s were when the dying first became removed from wider society and placed in such settings. The purpose was to hide the sorrows of the dying thwarting their condition from touching wider society, through what could be considered by some, a form of quarantine, containing the uncleanliness death. Certain workforces (i.e. hospitals, care homes, funeral directors) are now trained in the dealings of death, being deemed as the only members of society with the capabilities to cope with the natural process of dying. Through what is known as medicalisation death has become sterilised and proceduralized creating a segregation from society.

Ideals of society now demand that the ugly stain and tarnish that wreaks havoc with the presence of death must be separated from civilisation; not for the benefit of the dying but for the mental sanity of their loved ones. Life, as Aries views it through modernity strives to ignore the evil of suffering living in a bubble of ignorance overlooking the occurrence of death. Contemporary values demand societies’ citizens to contribute to the protection of death. Through the process of socialization children are raised to adopt the same ideals of taboos about death. Giving up their biological autonomy, instead adopting the philosophies and symbolic systems of modern culture immersing their beings into a sense of cultural immortality. Consequently, resulting in the sheltering and concealment of misery, aching hurts, and sorrows that evolve from one’s grief pertaining to processes of dying. They are now muted and covered over in order to try to maintain a semblance of perfect, pleasant happiness resulting in human concealment of their inherent awareness of death, freeing the mind from such emotional strains (Becker 1980).

Becker explains the process of socialization as the practise of deception, hiding the true path of one’s destiny within a feigned sense of immortality (Becker 2014). A concept of shared neurosis throughout society through irrational thoughts of cheating death. However, where this can be viewed in some areas of Western culture a true examination of the vast societies and cultures established during modernity cast doubt on this ideal of death denial. Many Western cultures have not adopted such a stance with completely different practices, beliefs and rituals being adopted in relation to death. While there is no scope in this essay to explore these practices further, such ideas may be touched upon to cast doubt upon the validity of the death denying, giving some form of credibility to the statement being evaluated in this essay.

Aries and Dastur argue that the last few decades, have altered death’s meaning changing it from solid fact to something more malleable that alleviated and avoided. “Death has ceased to be accepted as a natural, necessary phenomenon”. Through medicalisation death, illness and disease are claimed to have become ‘objective’ incidents rather than a basic trait of human life. One of the drastic changes in the perception of death stem from the fact that people no longer want to bear witness to such tragedy’s or see if coming. The ideal death in modern society is viewed as one of old age passing on in sleep. Furthermore, through the practice of medicine it is now normal to sedate the dying to cloud their pain and conscious awareness that death is coming. Walter (2008), contests, that the matter of public discourse, namely that of medicine, does not intentionally remove the emotional element of death. It just struggles to reach the capacity of relating empathy through the privately addressed pain through family dynamics. Though endeavours of holistic palliative care are attempting to introduce a caring, personalised attention throughout the medical process.

A technological approach has been created through the science of medicalisation, with many theorists directly linking it imperatives to societies denial of death. Death is now seen as the direct result of a technological failure when endeavouring to save the body. Health care systems are domination with the ideology of death prevention through the preservation of life at any cost. This ideology is now revealing some ethical concerns that come with such positions (Zimmermann and Rodin 2004, 121-128). The persistence of control in the preventing the death of those with no hope should be deemed poor practice. There is clear a distinction between extending life and drawing out the process of dying. When considering critiques of these forms of what some deem as malpractice it must be remember that the laws surrounding medicalisation are not the same everywhere with places such as Oregon providing assisted suicide to those in need of assistance to relieve suffering. Another process of denial that stems from this however is the states and governmental power over death as a way to control society. The ultimate form of control can be seen through practices corporal punishment or the illegalisation of euthanasia and suicide; the state literally hold’s everyone live in their hands through the crossing of such boundaries.

However, whilst there are many links through medicalisation that support the ideology of a death denying society a small twist of perspective can also lead to the questioning of such beliefs as well. During a period that holds such significant weight in the standing and rationality of scientific findings, the denial of death would then be an abnormality. Science proves that death is inevitable and cannot be avoided, and through the art of medicine in efforts to prolong life, society is not denying death but accepting it though the prolonging of life (Pearson 1991). Medicalisation is used as a form of control, allowing society to face death head on and tackle problems of extended suffering that could be prevented or reduced. This control only stems so far, thus demonstrating that death is still an inevitable factor of life and is accepted once the scientific, technological intervention has done all it can.

There are supplementary quarrels over the living attempting to persuade the dying that that is not their current state of being. Trying to convivence them that they will recover and live a healthy life. While in many ways this statement denies the death of the other, it can also be a defence mechanism; a statement of comfort, not for the individual dying but to the person who will be left behind. The dying will have accepted their fate and will use their last moments to console that will have to live with the effects of their passing (Becker 2014). It is the living that tend to have the issues with discussing death not the individuals soon to be touching death.

Medicalisation gives society the power to try and tackle death thus, in some sense giving a sense of heroism to the culture. People can view this fight for life, as though they are heroes rebelling against evil in the name of morality. This gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives whilst also creating an air of superiority and otherworldliness resulting in the separating humankind from their mortal animality. Despite Becker’s prose of existential tension in relation to this the fact remains that through the scientific realism of society today, religion tends not to be the main form of discussion in relation to medicalisation and thus, claims and ideas of godliness are not seen as a reflection of wider societies views in the world today. Western culture does derive a sense of determination and resolution through the process of medicalisation and efforts in aiding the saving of one’s lives. Nonetheless this does not stem from misplaced notions of immortality but through capitalism and the commoditisation of the self through the institutionalisation of working practices. Through notions of rationalism Weber illustrates economic life in modern society as a bureaucratic organisation of work through the systematic accounting measures used to evaluate and assess profit and worth. People now work not only to pay for their survival within society but also to pay for their eventual death. This consumerism that has been established through capitalism is another demonstration of State power over its citizens’ lives and deaths. This is society’s reality; it has become a working model of Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’ Theory. Through developments of capitalism and medicalisation there has been a result of increased rationalisation trapping individuals in the systems and processes within society that are solely centred on technological productivity, rational design and power over society through the controlling dominant body.

In close proximity with the medicalization of death in support of the death denial thesis is the individualisation and secularisation of society. Weber understands this to be a form of ‘disenchantment from the world’ where society can no longer comprehend their collective meaning as was once done in the past. The introduction of capitalism and rationality saw a shift from communal care to an individualistic society where everyone believes that they must function on a level of self-reliance. Matters become privatised thus seeing the dislodgment of the site of death. Where death during the Middle Ages was considered a collective matter of communal mourning, it is now segregated from society. It has become institutionalised, people very rarely die at home in modern society. Most death occur at hospitals or care homes hidden away from wider society, considered now a private matter of the dying the family and the state.

This segregation continues even after death through the changing rituals of Western society. Cemeteries keep the dead together in a separate area that can be forgotten about during everyday life and revisited during times of grief for a semblance of comfort. American practices of embalming allow for the preservation of the dead, temporarily giving the dead an air of eternal life amongst loved ones during viewings at the funeral. It upholds the façade of life as a factor of consolation to the family left behind. In the middle of 20th Century Europe, cremation was a routine method used in the funeral process. The incineration of the dead does the very opposite of the American tool of embalming, completely eradicating every molecule of the dead rather than attempting to perverse it. This again gives weight to the denial thesis as the families have been freed from the obligations of visitation of burial sites after the funeral. The dead are totally decimated from society, existing only in past memories. However, it can also be postulated that these new methods of dealing with the dead are just new rituals that have emerged as a product of the evolution of capitalism within certain areas of society. That instead of being methods of death denying, they are just new ceremonies to say goodbye to those that have been lost in a way to help the families grieve and let go of what is missing. The dead are not forgotten through death, just as it is not in the ritual itself that they will be remembered but in friends and families that their spirit will live on. Thus, the new methods of mourning and acceptance of death might just have become privatised through the evolution of self-awareness and reliance rather than solely being a process of death denial.

The rise of the scientific movement that emerged from the enlightenment meant that a sense of ontological insecurity developed throughout society. In the past the sense of security came from faith and religion. The collapse of religion left a hole permeating society that needed to be filled in other ways. Many researchers view this as the establishment of denial. However, upon closer examination when studying the advancements that evolve with society there is also a notable shift in the driving factors. According to Beck 1994 society is now run from a basis of risk prevention. Individuals are forced to consider the possibility of danger at every turn, and what could be considered a bigger risk than that of death. So arguably through all the processes, services and ceremonies discussed this could be thought that society is not denying their inevitable death just doing their best to prevent it, holding it off as long as possible.

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The Evolution Of Attitudes Towards Death Throughout History. (2021, January 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 1, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/the-evolution-of-attitudes-towards-death-throughout-history/
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