Western Attitudes Towards Death

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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 during this era, but the concept of burial ad sanctos. It was desirable to be buried in close proximity to a sacred holy place or saint.

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During the Middle Ages tamed death was subtly modified which "gradually gave a dramatic and personal meaning to man's traditional familiarity with death" (Ariès, p. 27). The concept of a judgment at the end of one’s life is introduced. This “last judgment” gave light to a new view on death. The view is that upon death, each man was examined before Christ according to the balance sheet of his life."Good and bad deeds are scrupulously separated and placed on the appropriate sides of the scales" (Ariès, p.32). This creation of a last judgment illustrates a belief in an existence after death, which was a stopover until the ultimate end of the world when “one’s balancing sheet will finally be closed” The transition between the tamed death era and the era of thought that Ariès calls one’s own death was caused by a heightened awareness of the individuality of the dying person. The method of burial used during the tamed death era truly illustrates the inexistence of the concept of individuality after death. In examining the evolution of thought regarding death from the tamed death era to one’s own death era we see a movement away from mass graves towards private, clearly marked graves. Effigies with inscriptions appear over time as well. These represent the desire to individualize the burial area, perpetuating the memory of the deceased in that spot. During the era of one’s own death, we see a transition from anonymity of the deceased to individuality of the deceased. "Beginning with the eleventh century a formerly unknown relationship developed between the death of each individual and his awareness of being an individual...In the mirror of his own death each man would discover the secret of his individuality" (Ariès, p.51). One’s own death or la mort de soi, refers to man having discovered his own individuality in death. Death then...
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