Three Changes in Modern Western Life (Other Than the Obvious One) That Help Explain Our “Culture of Death Avoidance”

“The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb” (1520–22) by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger.

There’s a really interesting passage from psychologist-theologian Richard Beck’s 2012 book The Slavery of Death that I wanted to share with you today. I mentioned Beck recently in a much longer post that you can check out if you’re interested. Anyway, one of the things in his book that most fascinated me was his chapter on our modern tendency to engage (subconsciously as much as consciously) in a “denial of death”—a tendency made possible by the removal of death from the foreground of our daily experience.

The most obvious reason for why we’ve been able to push death (mostly) to the margins of our daily experience is of course the incredible combination of affluence and modern medicine, which, as a recent New York Times article noted, has resulted in a doubling of the average human life span worldwide since 1920. That is an incredible feat and one that should fill us all with enormous gratitude. In many ways, we are so, so, so lucky to live in the 21st century.

More than anything else, that doubling of lifespans has enabled us to develop what Beck describes as a “culture of death avoidance.” But it’s not the only important shift in modern life that has had a role. There are three others Beck lays out, and together they have helped to foster what he describes as a “neurotic” modern relationship to death, one in which we go to great lengths to avoid even thinking about it or getting close to it.

I wanted to share those other three factors with you. First though, it’s worth hearing some of Beck’s lead-in on the subject. He writes,

[P]rior to the industrial revolution and the advent of modern medicine, our experience of death was more direct and immediate. Death was a daily reality. Consequently, the anxiety associated with death was less neurotic and more basic in nature. When people live life close to the bone, they don’t have a lot of energy to waste on worrying about keeping up with the Joneses or having a bad hair day. Surviving the day is trouble enough.

The situation today in more affluent parts of the world is very different. Technology, market economies, scientific agriculture, and advanced medicine have largely insulated us from death. We modern people rarely face death in our day-to-day lives. Consequently, we rarely give death any thought at all. In fact, if we do take time to contemplate death, others might think that we have a morbid or depressive temperament. So it’s not just that we don’t think of death, it’s that we shouldn’t think of death. And it’s here, with this reticence, that we catch our first hint that our modern relationship with death has taken a neurotic turn.

This reticence to dwell upon death is symptomatic of what Geoffrey Gorer has called “the pornography of death,” the sense that death has become an illicit subject, too unseemly for public discussion or reflection. Death, like pornography, should be hidden from view.

So, how did this “culture of death avoidance” come about? Well, apart from the aforementioned doubling of lifespans, Beck lays out three other major shifts that have played a role, as follows:

1.) Changes in Our Relationship to Food

In agrarian and herding cultures there was a close association between death and food. People literally killed their own food—killed it, bled it, skinned it, prepared it, cooked it, and ate it, often with only a few minutes separating each step. The association between death and food couldn’t have been any closer. Moreover, the food was full of reminders that it was once a living thing—bones, for example. Compare that life and that bony food with the experience of eating, say, a Chicken McNugget.

In our age, death has become radically disassociated with our food consumption. We don’t personally kill the animals we eat. Death occurs somewhere else—out of sight, out of awareness. Food just magically appears, disconnected from life and death. Further, when we do eat meat, as with the Chicken McNugget example, we have few signs that it was once a chicken, a living animal. In short, our relationship with our food has been radically emptied of all death-reminders.

2.) Changes in How and Where We Die

In the past, family members cared for the sick, doctors made house visits (though they couldn’t do much to help), and the ill, injured, and elderly died at home. People witnessed mothers and babies dying tragically in childbirth. Death, in short, was a routine part of family life and regularly found and encountered in the home.

In addition, after death families prepared the body and buried their loved ones in family or church plots. Consequently, by the time people reached their own deaths, they had already personally cared for, handled, and buried many lifeless bodies. Every residence was both a hospital and funeral home. Just about every female child had served as a hospice nurse. Just about every male child had helped dig a grave.

All this changed with the rise of the modern hospital. With the advent of modern technological medicine, death was taken out of the home and moved into hospitals. In the face of this change the funeral industry began to create “funeral homes”; thus the burial process was also removed from households and the daily lives of families. “Specialists” started to handle sickness, hospice care, and death. And with funeral services no longer taking place in the parlor of the home, magazines of this era began to propose that the parlor be reclaimed from the dead and returned to the living. To signal this, to erase the memory of the dead, parlors became “living rooms.” Yes, parlors still exist today, but mainly in funeral homes.

3.) Changes in Our Proximity to Cemeteries

In times past the dead were buried on family land or in cemeteries adjacent to churches that doubled as schools and public gathering spaces—an arrangement that still exists in some historic sites. In short, people lived next door to cemeteries. The home, the church, the school, and the public square were all a stone’s throw away from the dead. Again, death was a constant companion.

But with the rise of the modern funeral industry, cemeteries were gradually distanced from homes, churches, schools, and public squares. They moved from the center of life to the periphery—physically, culturally, and psychologically. Death was effectively banished from our field of view.

Interesting stuff, right? Those three developments—all happening somewhat behind the scenes—have enabled us to become more detached from the reality of death, causing our inborn fear of death to be sublimated in a variety of strange, mostly harmful ways. You’ll have to read the book to get the full rundown on those effects. That chapter alone is worth a one-month free trial of Scribd. Ultimately, Beck concludes this section thus:

Over a hundred years ago […] we’ve come to expect to live to a ripe old age. Given this expectation, when death comes sooner we experience a radical disruption, as if something has gone wrong. Despite the fact that we know we are biological creatures and that death is inevitable, death comes as a shock to us, whereas it rarely, if ever, shocked our forebears. And this shock is a symptom of our neurotic relationship with death.

I have to wonder if many of our failures to deal with reality during this pandemic have something to do with this tendency towards “death avoidance.” Certainly our obsessions with our own individual success, fulfillment, health, happiness, prosperity, legacy, etc. have something to do with it. Anyway, y’all take care!

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