On Death and Dying: A Review of Historical Perspectives and Implications for Modern Society
All living creatures must eventually die; this is one of the simple facts of life and one of the ways in which life and living can most clearly be understood and defined. That which cannot die cannot be alive, and even the most long-lived organisms -- some of which can persist for thousands of years -- suffer the deterioration and depletion of the cells and tissues of which they are made, and which sustain the functions that keep them alive (Luper 2009). This is just as true for the smallest form of bacteria as it is for the giant creatures of the world's oceans, and from the simplest unicellular organisms to the most complex and sophisticated mammals -- no matter what form an organism takes or how the organism lives, it must eventually die.
Death is not merely the end of biological life, however; though this is its clearest and most concrete definition, death is often a process that involves many non-biological and abstract concepts for both the individual organisms that is dying and others that continue living around it. A sense of impending death and facing the unknown void that lies beyond life often accompanies the dying process for individuals, and the sense of loss that others experience following a death is equally if not even more profound, with the death itself and indeed the entire process of dying most often viewed with a great deal of reverence and care. Despite the ultimately biological nature of life and death, that is, many of the most important aspects of death and of dying have little or nothing to do with direct biological realities.
This is true of many creatures in the animal kingdom, and is not limited solely to humans. Elephants legendarily have "graveyards" of sorts where aging individuals go to die, and where the bones of many successive generations can be found; while the factual existence of these sites might be somewhat overblown, there is increasing evidence that elephants recognize and show great reverence for the bones of their species and may even recognize the remains of individual family members (Battacharya 2005; WNET 2010). Many other species also exhibit a recognition of the facts of death and how this impacts themselves as living creatures and their ongoing existence in social groups that must move beyond the deaths of individual members (Angier 2008). Though such sentiments are definitely not universally observed in all animal species, the fact that they exist in so many higher-order beings makes it clear that experiencing death in profound emotional, psychological, and social manners is as natural an occurrence as the process of dying and death itself.
The most complex attitudes and understandings of death and dying, of course, are observed in human beings, if for no other reason that we understand our own behaviors and actions at least somewhat better than those of the species -- they are more communicable, if nothing else. Death rituals amongst humanoids stretch back at least as far as sixty thousand years, to the time when a recently discovered Neanderthal man was adorned with animal antlers and flowers after succumbing to nature's terminal forces (WYFDA 2000). Though the specifics might have changed in the millennia that followed this ritual, the handling of death remains the same.
Every human civilization ever studied or encountered has its own rituals for dealing with death, and though these vary a great deal from culture to culture and from one historical period to the next, there is always some standard practice in every culture associated with death and dying (Powell 2010). In this paper, certain historical rituals associated with death and the ways of handling the dying process in various cultures will be examined, and the modern Western methods of handling this process and its ultimate outcome will also be examined. Death in modern society has become de-ritualized in some senses, as science and rationality have replaced religion and spirituality, which has not necessarily been a benefit to society, to dying indivituals, or to their families. Recommendations as to how our society might able to restore dignity, reverence, and respect to death and to the process of dying will also be made as a part of the scope of this paper.
Death Throughout History
The oldest known civilization with a true written record of its customs, traditions, and beliefs is the Mesopotamian culture from the part of the world now known as the Middle East. Death was a highly important part of this culture with death rituals serving to form kinship bonds and perpetuate familial dynasties in ways that were both personally and politically potent (Cohen 2005). Religious and political custom were inseparable in this culture, as in many ancient cultures leading to highly codified and extremely reverent ways of dealing with death (Cohen 2005). Though death was not necessarily well understood, there is not question it was respected.
Some of the most famous and well-known death rituals from ancient civilizations are those of the ancient Egyptians, whose monuments still stand as one of the great wonders of the world. It is the attitude behind these monuments, however, that is truly fascinating and relevant to discussions of death in our own time. The physicians of ancient Egypt were as concerned with death and the preservation of the dead as they were with the preservation of life -- possibly more so (O'Brien 1999). The mummification and enshrining in large, ornate, and richly-appointed tombs of many ancient Egyptian ruler and members of the aristocracy is also indicative of the care that was taken with the dead, and the belief that death itself was merely a passageway to another existence (O'Brien 1999). The process of dying was therefore not seen predominantly as an event leading to loss, destruction, or mere emptiness but was actually viewed in something of a celebratory manner (O'Brien 1999).
Death was not always seen with the same level of respect by the ancient Romans, for whom great sport was made of watching political prisoner of various stripes meet violent and horrific deaths in venues such as the Coliseum (Kyle 1998). This disrespect, however, did not extend to the whole of Roman society but was reserved for the lowest classes that existed therein. In the higher strata of Roman culture the dying process was attended to by physicians as well as religious figures, prominent community members, as well as the family and friends of the dying person (Bernstein 2000). Death was also a significant community-building tool leading to the foundation of public buildings as commemorative monuments (Bernstein 2000).
Even in the Middle Ages, a time that is traditionally thought of as one of the darker periods of Western society, the dying process and death itself were seen as important events for both the individual going through them and the larger community. New concepts instilled by the advent of Christianity had changed somewhat the tenor and trajectory of attitudes and perspective towards death but these only served to increase the reverence and moment associated with the end of life (Golden 2000). Forgiveness and acknowledgement of sin became essential for the dying individual towards his or her community and vice versa, as death was seen as a necessary step on the path to salvation (Golden 2000). This made the experience at once more humanly humbling and grandly divine, and even those not close to the soon-to-be-deceased were an integral part of providing support for the dying individual and his or her family during and after the dying process. (Golden 2000).
In the Renaissance, attitudes towards death began to take a notable change in several different regards. One of the most notable of the new trends in the way death and the dying process were viewed during this period was the increased emphasis on the legal ramifications of death. Though issues of what happened to property after a person died had existed since before written records were kept, it was in Renaissance Italy that these issues truly came to the fore and were a very common source of disputes and conflict, with the person truly beginning to matter less in the minds of the community than their property and possessions (Cohen 2004). This dehumanization of dying carried over into other aspects of the dying process as well.
The Renaissance was also the period in human history when individualism, humanism, and a true focus on the importance of even the lowliest members of society as worthwhile persons in and of themselves was becoming a part of the overall worldview in Western society. Yet as the importance of each individual during their lifetime was increasing, their importance in and after death was on the decline. Despite the still widespread Christian beliefs and values during this period, death was increasingly seen as the end of personal existence and the termination of all purpose and meaning (Watson 1994). The dying process, therefore, became something to be abhorred,…