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Death in Western Culture

Digital History TOPIC ID 30

Many of humanity's greatest monuments, including the pyramids, are memories to death. Much of our greatest literature, including the works of Dante and John Milton, deals with heaven and hell. But in the twentieth century, Americans developed a phobia about death. As sex emerged out of the closet, death was pushed back into it, not to be spoken of in polite society. Dying was left to medical technology and no longer takes place in the home but in the hospital. Funerals are abbreviated and simplified. Cremation becomes common. Mourning was increasingly thought of as a form of depression to be treated with psychological therapy.

The most striking feature about life 300 years ago was the constant presence of death. Cemeteries were located at the very center of villages, symbolizing death's central presence. Death rates were four times what they are today.

In contrast, our cemeteries are set apart from society. Usually, our cemeteries are surrounded by walls or fences. Symbolically, we deny death. After death, corpses are embalmed. They are cosmetically restored as if asleep. Coffins are selected for their superior padding, as if comfort mattered to the corpse. We use euphemisms to speak of the dead; they have passed on. We describe the premises of death with terms like funeral parlor or home.

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