Death, Society, and Human Experience
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Death, Society, and Human Experience

Robert Kastenbaum, Christopher M. Moreman

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eBook - ePub

Death, Society, and Human Experience

Robert Kastenbaum, Christopher M. Moreman

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About This Book

Providing an overview of the myriad ways that we are touched by death and dying, both as an individual and as a member of society, this book will help readers understand our relationship with death. Kastenbaum and Moreman show how various ways that individual and societal attitudes influence both how and when we die and how we live and deal with the knowledge of death and loss. This landmark text draws on contributions from the social and behavioral sciences as well as the humanities, such as history, religion, philosophy, literature, and the arts, to provide thorough coverage of understanding death and the dying process. Death, Society, and Human Experience was originally written by Robert Kastenbaum, a renowned scholar who developed one of the world's first death education courses. Christopher Moreman, who has worked in the field of death studies for almost two decades specializing in afterlife beliefs and experiences, has updated this edition.

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As We Think About Death

Union General John Sedgwick was killed during the battle of Spotsylvania on May 8, 1864, while watching Confederate troops. His last words were, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist ….”
—quoted by John Richard Stephens (2006, p. 161)
One man was stretchered away after he was hit in the back by a bull with its horn and another man who had tripped had a lucky escape when the animal simply tripped over him … “You’re not even thinking. You’re just sprinting. The elation at the end of it. You’re just ecstatic,” said a 23-year-old accountant from Adelaide, Australia, Jim Atkinson
—CNN (2004)
“His brow was perfectly calm. No scowl disfigured his happy face, which signifies he died an easy death, no sins of this world to harrow his soul as it gently passed away to distant and far happier realms.”
—U.S. Civil War Confederate soldier, quoted by Drew Gilpin Faust (2008, p. 21)
In the land of the Uttarakurus grows the magic Jambu tree, whose fruit has the property of conferring immunity from illness and old age, and, by means of this fruit, they lengthen their lives to a thousand years or even, in some accounts, to eleven thousand years … among other things, their realm includes landscapes of precious stones and trees from whose branches grow beautiful maidens.
—Gerald J. Gruman (2003, p. 33)
LIFE IS SUPPOSED to go on. Yes, there is death, but not here, not now, and surely not for us. We wake to a familiar world each day. We splash water on the same face we rinsed yesterday. We talk with people whose faces are familiar. We see so much of what we have seen many times before. It is so comforting … this ongoingness of daily life. Why disturb this pattern? Why think of death? Why make each other anxious? And why do anything that would increase our risk? Here are a few quick, if perhaps not entirely satisfying answers:
General Sedgwick led an eventful life, but is remembered now for his inadvertently famous last words. Did he deny his immediate danger to set a bold example for his troops, to cover up his own fear, or perhaps just because he would not think of taking advice from a junior officer? Denial of vulnerability can be a fatal gesture.
Who can resist the opportunity to be scared out of their wits on a diabolical rollercoaster or gored and trampled by a bull? Each year so many people crowd into the northern Spanish town of Pam plona that they become almost as much a menace to each other as the six bulls who rush down cobblestone streets. (Fifteen have died and hundreds have been injured since the first bull run in 1911.) The “ecstasy” of outrunning death is hard to understand for those who organize themselves around the avoidance of mortal anxiety. Our friend “Anonymous” tries out the biggest and baddest rollercoasters, and does it over and over again. It’s the thrill of terror and the joy of survival (see edge theory, this chapter).
In mid-nineteenth-century United States, people thought often and intensely about death. No family was secure from the threat of virulent epidemics and lethal infections, especially during or after childbirth. Fortunately, they knew how they were supposed to think about death. Guide books for Christian living and dying were relied on by many families. The Civil War brought death on an unprecedented scale and in horrifying forms. The loss of young lives was devastating to families on both sides of the conflict. What made these losses all the more unbearable was the fact that sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers had died far from home, bereft of comfort and spiritual ministry, and possibly in a despairing state of mind. The Confederate soldier quoted by Faust at the beginning of this chapter was providing a welcome service when he described his cousin’s death in such positive terms in a condolence letter. It was best if his relatives could be made to believe that their young man had ended his life at peace with himself and God. How people died reflected on how they had lived and hinted at what would be their estate in the afterlife (see also the good death in Chapter 15).
Through the centuries, most people died before what we now would consider to be midlife. Many did not even survive childhood. Perhaps this is one reason why the folklore of ancient times is filled with stories about fortunate people who lived so long that they hardly needed to think about death. The Uttarakurus were supposed to live in the far north of India, but similar tales flourished in Greek, Persian, Teutonic, Hindu, and Japanese lore, among others. One of the oldest Hebrew legends speaks of the River of Immortality, which some scholars believe provided the background for Christ being identified with the Fountain of Life. The idea that in a faraway place there were refreshing waters that could extend life and perhaps also renew youth was still credible enough to gain funding for Ponce de Leon’s expedition to Florida (although skeptics suggest it was gold lust all the way). Fear of dying could be attributed to the prevailing short life expectancy. If only we could do something about death, we wouldn’t have to be thinking about it so often!
Some families today cherish fading photographs of relatives who died years ago of pneumonia, tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid, scarlet fever, infantile paralysis, and other widespread diseases. One hoped to survive the diseases that threatened children and young adults. One hoped for the chance to realize personal dreams for a good life. Perspectives have changed about what to do when life isn’t good. There are now increasing demands for release from life when the quality of that life has been reduced by painful or incapacitating illness. Death, once the problem, is being regarded as the answer by a growing number of people.
Sanitation workers are just doing their job, but anthropologist (and fellow employee) Robin Nagel observes many people anxiously associate the disposal of trash with their own mortality in a throw-away society that has difficulty in facing the realities of impermanence and death.
In this chapter we begin our exploration of thoughts, knowledge, attitudes, and feelings about death. We will consider many world societies, although our focus is on the United States. It is not enough, though, to attend only to the way other people think about death; therefore, this chapter also provides the opportunity to take stock of our own dealings with mortality. First, we gather around the campfire and spare a few thoughts for our ancestors.


We have already touched a little on the history of death. In fact, one might grumble that all of history is just death warmed over. The people who did those things, or had those things done to them—their lives, no matter how lively, have been absorbed into yesteryear. Grumbles aside, the history of death is so interwoven with life that scholars have hesitated to take it on. Try to encompass life and death in the big picture, leaving nothing out and placing everything in balanced perspective. Good luck with that! Therefore, in this book we offer historical perspectives in many specific areas, e.g., hospice care, euthanasia, terrorism, and afterlife beliefs. One scholar stands out, however, for his effort to identify basic themes in attitudes toward death over an extended period. Phillipe Aries had already made substantial contributions to the history of family life (1987) and the social construction of childhood (1962). Aries’ influential work (1981) energized the study of death from a historical perspective. He attempted to reconstruct the history of European death attitudes, focusing on approximately a thousand years after the introduction of Christianity up to the present time. He drew most of his observations from burial practices and rituals surrounding the end of life. Aries’ book is a treasure of information regarding how our ancestors lived with death.
What does Aries extract from this daunting mass of observations? Four psychological themes and their variations: awareness of the individual; the defense of society against untamed nature; the belief in an afterlife; and belief in the existence of evil. These themes have unfolded through the centuries.
Death was primarily a community event in the earliest human societies. The community or tribe could be seriously weakened by the loss of its members, and the survivors feared even more for their lives. Nature was dangerous, so the death of the individual was relatively “tame.” How the community would keep itself strong and viable was the challenge.
Ritualization was a way of protecting fragile human society from the uncontrollable perils of nature and malevolent gods. Death and the dead had to be dealt with constantly. Much of the danger resided in potential harm from the dead, who might return with a vengeance. The dead as well as death were tamed by requiring them to return only under specified occasions and conditions. Mostly, the early Christian dead were assigned the role of peaceful sleepers. Speak not ill of them.
About a thousand years into the Christian era, a darker shadow fell over prevailing attitudes: the death of the self became the most intense concern. People became more aware of themselves as individuals. This was associated with a heightened sense of vulnerability. It was their very own life, their very own soul that was at stake. And there was a lot more to life. The quality of life was improv...

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