Why death is too grave to talk about

The only inevitable has preoccupied all cultures and religion, but now in the West we shun it, says Suzanne Harrington.

WHEN I was visiting a terminally ill friend, she joked about how between hospital appointments and complementary therapies, dying is a full-time job. Yet it’s not a job we are keen to think about, never mind talk about, despite its inevitability. Every day, 155,000 people die — that’s more than 50m a year. Yet, in Western culture, death is not part of life. It is removed, outsourced, sanitised, peripheral. It is what Hamlet called the “undiscover’d country.”

So a book called A Brief History of Death is intriguing. Its author, William Spellman, is professor of history at the University of North Carolina, and is not afraid of huge topics and vast time spans. Spellman defines death as “a permanent loss of neural activity or brain function and the irreversible cessation of biological processes”, or, as they say in Florida, “terminally inconvenienced”. What happens to us when we are dead fascinates and frightens us. Spellman says we have three standpoints. The first is we cease to be. The end. Kaput. Game over. “A relatively small number of people have concluded that death is the negation of being, the end of life, plain and simple,” he writes. From the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, to the modern American humanist, Corliss Lamont, “recognising extinction as our common destiny” has freed us from what Lamont called “the dual terrorism of priests and gods”. When we die, we die.

But the need for meaning can override this matter-of-fact take on death, which leads to a second standpoint — agnosticism. This is a way of saying “we don’t know”, an attitude popularised by Plato — there may be something after death, but until we die, we won’t know what that is. The only thing we definitely know is that we don’t know.

The third standpoint is the most prevalent — “the unending journey of the immaterial soul.” Ancient Greek, Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions believe in a resurrection, while South Asia believes in reincarnation, and African, East Asian and North American cultures emphasise ancestry. Traditional Chinese belief is that the dead live on through their progeny. So it is a widespread belief that we do not truly die when we die — we die and then something else happens. Religions and belief systems have different understandings of what this something might be, but it is definitely something, rather than nothing. But first we have to die. This is where death is social — we treat the dead body respectfully, and honour the memory longer-term via gravestones, mausoleums and newspaper ads to commemorate anniversaries. Yet such remembrance is not lasting. When Marcus Aurelius, who died in 180AD, said “how quickly all things disappear, bodies into the universe, memories of them into time”, he could have been talking about any time in human history. Today, not only is death taboo in Western society, so is ageing — hence the rampant anti-ageing industry.

Spellman says that at the end of the Second World War, when death became “a medical phenomenon first and religious event second,” it also became taboo. This is when the “death-denying culture” emerged — when death became institutionalised, and conversations about death became trickier as “a youth culture made cosmetic counter-offensives against ageing a massive service industry”.

At the other end of history, humans were death-deniers for different reasons. Early hunter gatherers often killed each other; and they were too busy trying to stay alive to have elaborate funerals. It was only when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering, and people settled in one place, that burial was conceived, and bodies were decorated with shells and beads and interred in caves. In early urban sites, between 7400-6000BC, the dead were placed in the houses of the living, wrapped in reed mats, and buried under the hearths and beds of their families. In one excavation in Turkey, the remains of 62 people were found in the same house.

From placing decorated bodies in pyramids to building the Taj Mahal, from graveyards to funeral pyres, we take great care to honour our dead. Religions have long-marketed death as liberation from earthly suffering, as a reward for a tough life, but as the influence of religions weakens in the West, we have turned to other meanings in death: 19th century spiritualism gave way to a 20th century obsession with the paranormal — both of which attempted to “demonstrate the existence of a non-physical soul”.

Spellman says there are only two forms of death — that of another person, and of ourselves, and that people in the West are not allowed to grieve properly. Public displays of grief are “discouraged” and “associated with abnormal behaviour” (we hate it when people wail at funerals). “The dynamics of loss” have been made “secretive”, says Spellman, hidden under “a giant camouflage.” When we die, we are merely making room for the next lot: “The journey’s end can be a welcome and much-deserved emancipation.”

A Brief History Of Death, by WM Spellman, Reaktion Books €24

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