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Western Attitudes Towards Death

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Western Attitudes Towards Death

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  • Feb. 2013
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An Examination of the Evolution of Western Attitudes toward Death

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Although the attitudes of western civilization towards death may seem to be unchanged over long periods of time, it has been illustrated in the past that they are, in fact dynamic. Western attitudes towards death are constantly evolving, ever so slowly and subtly. However, periodically quantum leaps in popular thought regarding death have occurred. These changes are noticeable because they are so very rapid. Philippe Ariès, author of Western attitudes towards death describes four distinct eras of thought with regards to death. He calls these eras Tamed death, One’s own death, Thy death, and Forbidden death. The transitions between each of these four eras are caused by significant historical events that profoundly alter the attitudes and beliefs of the masses. “Tamed death” is used by Ariès to describe the cultural view of death prior to the middle ages. During this tamed death era, death was a familiar and quite public event. The rituals of the sickbed were well known and children were even included in the deathbed scene. In his references to the chansons de geste, Ariès illustrates that both brave Knights and devout Monks approached death in the same way because “they were usually forewarned” (Ariès, p.2). During the tamed death era it was believed that death would send a warning through either natural signs or more often an inner conviction (Ariès, p.4). Once warned, the soon to be dead would prepare to die. The ritual of dying was a process that was “organized by the dying person himself”. After having made all preparations, the dying person would calmly wait for death. The bodies of those who had died were buried in large communal graves where they decomposed until they were able to be transported to charnel houses. Often the remains of the deceased were separated and jumbled together with the remains of others. It was not the individuality of the deceased after death that was important...