A great change has occurred in the rituals, formal and informal, surrounding dying and death in North America. Here and in other contemporary western cultures, our customary practices around dying and death, have changed dramatically. For millennia, both were part of the familiar fabric of human experience. But no longer.
There is more than one reason. Life expectancy was much lower. As recently as 1900 in the United States, it was 45 years. Infant and children mortality rates were high. Of my paternal grandparents’ ten children, three died before adulthood. Mortality rates in childbirth were also high.
Most people died at home, not in a hospital. Thus almost everybody would have experienced a death before they were adults. Depending upon their age, children would have been involved in the care of a dying person and likely present at their death.
After death, the body was not removed to a funeral home. Rather, the family was responsible for preparing the corpse for washing and dressing it for burial. The wake would also be in the home, commonly in the parlor. Hence the names “funeral home” and “funeral parlor” for the enterprises that now perform that role in our customs around death.
These developments are not simply regrettable. Though modern medicine has mostly removed the place of death to hospitals, it is welcomed by most of us. So are the services of funeral directors, funeral homes, cemeteries and crematoria. Most of us have no idea what to do with a corpse. But the removal of dying and death from home and family to institutions has created a huge change in our intimacy with death.
Consider the good death in pre-modern Europe, the ideal death, the beautiful death, as described by cultural historian Philippe Aries in The Hour of Our Death. Because Europe was then Christian, it is also a pre-modern Christian way of death. Its central features included dying at home, surrounded by family and friends, with final lamentations, good-byes and blessings. Presided over by the church, it also included confession of sins, absolution, a final eucharist and extreme unction. And then a silent wait for the gradual but ideally quick descent into death. The dying person experienced it. Family and friends experienced it.
How often death happened in this idealized way and how this ideal was shaped by social class remains debated. Did most die this way? Or was this an ideal and not convention? But it is sharply different from how we experience dying and death. Our ancestors of whatever social class were familiar with death in ways that we are not.
The change has led some cultural commentators to argue that America and other modern societies have become death-denying cultures. The claim needs some explanation.
It does not mean that we are intellectually ignorant that we will die. Few of us would get that wrong on a true-false test. Moreover, we are visually (if not viscerally) more aware of death than any generation prior to us. The news is full of it. Headlines highlight death and the threat of death: natural catastrophes, wars, terrorism, plane crashes, Ebola, the perils of artificial turf, to mention a few recent ones. Video games (though I do not know them firsthand) are filled with killing and death. So are many movies. I have heard that the average American child sees over 20,000 video deaths by adulthood.On the other hand, most of us, as described early in this blog, have very little firsthand experience of death. The psychological and spiritual effects of that unfamiliarity are unclear.
Over a hundred years ago, the Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) in his powerful, dense, and lengthy essay “The Decisiveness of Death: At the Side of the Grave” argued that there is an enormous difference between knowing the syllogism “All people are mortal” and “Therefore I am mortal” and the vivid and earnest awareness of one’s own death – that it will happen to me. The latter involves radical certainty (there will come a time when the coffin is closed on me) and uncertainty (we know neither its timing nor location – perhaps yet today).
Knowing only the syllogism commonly leads to a life of what Kierkegaard calls “procrastination” – living as if we have an indefinite amount of time and therefore can put off really living until some future time. But the vivid awareness of one’s own death, its certainty and uncertainty, can end procrastination and impel us into the present: to live each day as if it were the last and yet also the first in a life that may have many years left.
Death is also the great equalizer. Kings and beggars, rich and poor, the mighty and the weak, are all equal in death. And yet we spend much of our lives seeking to differentiate ourselves from others and in all too many cases seek to lord it over one another. We commonly spend our energy on that which is nullified by death.
For Kierkegaard, the earnest awareness of our own death is the master teacher who can teach us how to live. Without it, we risk frittering our lives away.
This wisdom is grounded in the world’s ancient religious traditions. The theme of Psalm 90 is our mortality and concludes, “So teach us to number our days as to give us a heart of wisdom.” One of the most powerful Buddhist practices involves meditating on a cremation ground. An alternative translation of Ecclesiastes 12.1 urges us to remember our grave in the days of our youth. In many cultures, memento mori –reminders of death – function as talismans.
If this wisdom is true, than the diminishment of a visceral awareness of death and our own deaths may impede our ability to live as fully and vitally as we might. Modern western societies encourage us to live as if our futures will be indefinitely long.
So the question arises: is remembering the dead not just about remembering the dead, but about remembering our own deaths? Are our rituals around dying and death much more important for life than we may have thought? Is death the master teacher of how to live?
This post is part of the Patheos Public Square on Remembering the Dead: Ancestors, Rituals, Relics, beginning October 16, 2014.