HISTORY IS A PLACE where innumerable mouths have been dumb. Paradox: death steps in to speak for them. In going to their deaths, the past armies of the silent arranged their dying in ways that speak out about life: about the self, about loved ones, about good and evil, about society, and about their dreams of renewal. The historical study of death thus belongs to the submerged history of popular culture. I take these points from a new book by the French historian, Philippe Aries, known for his previous work on the history of childhood and family life. The Hour Of Our Death is a committed and intoxicating history of Western attitudes towards death during the past thousand years.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, knights preferred, in ideal circumstances, to be buried with their fighting cohorts, rather than beside parents, wife, for children. The age was violent and unsettled enough to overturn the ancient taboo prescribing that the dead should be buried -- as if they were pollutants -- far from the living. From this time on there was a growing desire to be interred in or around churches, near the saints and holy men whose remains were assumed to throw a halo of protection over the sleeping dead. Although religious authority long opposed the turning of churches into tombs for the laity, the fashion triumphed, particularly, as one might expect, among the rich and powerful, who acquired the largest chapels and crypts. By and large burial outside churches, in churchyards, was for the vast majority of people, although in England the churchyard was good enough even for noblemen.
Aries holds that down to about the 12th century most Europeans drew no real distinction between body and soul. Somehow, in their thinking, they united the two and looked upon death as a kind of sleep. The vision of a clean split was evolved by a clerical intelligentsia which felt uneasy about death as early as the 9th century. That division gave a revolutionary emphasis to the individual self (soul and self converged) and by the 12th century this new notion of the self was accepted by large numbers of people. Contemporaneously, the idea of the Last Judgment was fused for the first time with the idea of Christ's Second Coming, with the result that funeral rites came to be dominated by the saying of prayers for the dead (a precaution first taken in the 8th or 9th century). Emphasis on the soul had turned attention on the self, and the sense of this enhanced "I" brought a deepening uneasiness about death. Generally speaking, however, Europeans fully accepted death and were fully resigned to that "sleep."
The next revolution in attitudes took place in the 14th century. Aires suggests that history knows no greater materialism than that which possessed late-medieval folk, who were passionately attached to the things of this world. Their strong penchant for the imagery of rotting corpses reflected not fear of death so much as the intense materialism of the times, a mad love of life and hence anguish at having to leave it. In the history of art, the early still life -- the object painted in and for itself -- belongs to this stage of European history. Death itself, as in the Dance of Death, was made to put on its most striking visages.
We pass to the rationalist 18th century, which sought to demote death. Anguish and fear were not things for reasonable men. Accordingly, the call went out to remove cemeteries from around churches. Traditionally placed among the living, those places, again considered unhealthy, were deemed to be more appropriate on the outskirts to towns. Meanwhile society was seeing the rise to dominance of the small, in-turned, privacy-loving, conjugal family. And this cell, with its atmosphere of close "affectivity," was the setting for the death of "the other," the loved one -- an intolerable wrenching for the survivors. Enter the romantic death of the 19th century, the "beautiful" death, whereby the loved one dies happily, at once flushed with hope and beauty. Heaven having been "desanctified" by rationalism, the dream of renewal now substituted a place of bliss where all loved ones would be together again eternally. An offshoot of this new mode of death was the rise of 19th-century spiritualism: contact across the grave between loved ones.
Remnants of the romantic model of death are with us still, but now in the West -- in keeping with our advanced industrialization -- another is dominant: the "invisible" death, death denied, occurring only in hospitals and only because something has gone wrong. Somehow, in our scientific and technological age, death should not be.
The evidence put before us by Aries shows tentacular ties between society and the different modes of death. The early medieval warrior longs to be buried with his comrades. The Renassiance merchant, hating to be parted from the world and his goods, draws up wills to maintain his hold on the earth forever: by providing endowment (charity and income) for poor clerics, whose job will be to say Masses for his soul in perpetuity. From the time of the French Revolution, nationalism too will put its seal on death by erecting patriotic monuments to commemorate heroes and war dead. The 19th-century couple, linchpin of the bourgeois family in its heyday, want to die in beautifully arranged household circumstances. And late 20th-century man, in a seizure of technological optimism, cannot get himself to acknowledge death.
These are the main lines of The Hour of Our Death. Owing to the book's length and rich discursivenes, I cannot render its complexity and subtlety. Aries draws his evidence from tombs, poetry, tympana, inscriptions, woodcuts, effigies, family correspondence, urban planning, codes of law, handbooks on "the art of dying," wills, painting, iconography, early encyclopedia articles, newspapers, modern psychology, and so on. As the range of sources is vast, so the problems of analysis and method are awesome.
But aries is enormously unafraid. He soars easily over great stretches of time and place, even at the expense of offering interpretations with an insufficient grounding in concrete social analysis. Historians and specialists will quarrel with his organizing "models," his uses of "the collective unconscious," his understanding of medieval eschatology and liturgy, his shifting lines of argument, and his preference for example over analysis. Others, again, will notice that both Germany and rural society should have had a larger share of the evidence. Much in these objections will be sustainable. Much, however, will also break down into quibbles and pretty carping about a book which opens up a daunting subject. The best historical writing is never, I think, pusillanimous. Aries's achievement here is daring from beginning to end.