Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Responses to death demonstrate and dramatize, not least by their variety, human responses to life. The contrast between a common traditional view and a common contemporary view is epitomized in the story of the mother who, at the beginning of this century, asked the clerical headmaster of England's best-known independent school (Eton), "What, in a word, are you educating the children for?" and received the reply, "In a word, madame: death." Such an answer would hardly be forthcoming today.

Religion can be held responsible for the emphasis placed upon death in Western culture in the last century, and in the seventeenth century, and in the later Middle Ages. Alternatively, it can be held to have been responsive to the human needs of those periods. (Parallels may be suggested with the development of medicine or counseling in the twentieth century.) In either case, it may be praised for helping people to come to grips with death, its ubiquity, inevitability, and significance, or else it may be blamed for diverting resources of time and energy and matériel from more immediate, soluble, and secular concerns. Certainly, the consequent Western silence about death earlier in this century has now been broken.

Typical of the "traditional" view (that is, of "early modern" society) was the retention, from earlier forms of society, of an awareness of the continued presence of the dead, who were less "departed" than simply "lost to sight" (the Africanists' "living dead"). They were, however, dichotomized into denizens of either heaven or hell, in both Buddhist and Catholic wall paintings and Moslem and Protestant literature. It would be facile to assume that such displays induced exactly comparable motivation, any more automatically than contemporary allusions to "tropical paradises" or "infernal swamps," yet the representations cannot have been totally counterintuitive. Individual human lives were seen as capable of moral summation and of subsequent division: Somehow and sometime, the righteous would be rewarded, and the unrighteous would receive their "comeuppance." Yet, both in Catholic Christianity, and in Hinduism and Buddhism, where iconography made the dichotomy vividly graphic, its implementation could only be maintained by its almost infinite postponement, beyond ordinary death: through the development of doctrines of purgatory and reincarnation and, in the Christian case, of the extensive institutionalization of prayers for the departed.

Traditionally, the moment of dying was similarly dichotomous. If only because of the relative universality, both of baptism and of cultural faith, the medieval church stressed two prophetic elements in Christ's teaching that were subversive of its own order. On the one hand, based upon Jesus's preaching of the Kingdom, even the foulest of sinners could, by a deathbed repentance, be saved from the natural and otherwise inevitable consequences of their own past misdeeds. On the other hand, based upon his teaching about the Last Judgment, mercy would be shown to those "anonymous Christians" who had shown mercy to others in their own hour of need. The moment of death being as inevitable, but unknowable, as the condition of life after death, it also became as momentous as well as momentary. "Praying for a good death" therefore meant attending to and preparing for it, in the same way as the semieternity of purgatory was serviced by prayers for the dead.

Contemporary culture may be equally conscious of the dichotomy between righteous and unrighteous behavior, but it is less sanguine about even the divine ability to reach a simple verdict about the individual's overall achievement and personal responsibility. The newly bereaved widow or parent may confidently assert (partly for reassurance), "He's all right now, he's with Jesus [wherever He is]," but that is as far as traditional society feels able to pontificate or speculate, in the contemporary climate, about life after death. Such ruminations have been privatized. ("Spiritualist" activities are as much an instance of, as an exception to, the rule.) Thus postmortem , in contemporary culture, is a medical term referring to the body, to the cause of its death, and, if necessary, to its dissection, not to life after death.

Current concern, which is at least as driven by fear as any past concern, among all ages from adolescence onward, has been transferred to what happens before death. The nub of the matter is what is assessed as the loss of personal dignity: beginning with the diminution of mobility, continuing with the restriction of speech and memory, and concluding with incontinence. "Hell," in connection with death, is now a premortem senility, which is virtually a matter of biological chance but can be very prolonged. Indeed, before the process is finished, the dying may empathically live through the bereavement of those who are losing the person while still tending his or her body. Thus the hospice movement can be seen as the answer to the (unspoken) prayer for a "good death," which, if not "holy," is at least humane.

As far as the moment of death is concerned, attention has switched from prayer for the appropriate spiritual attitude to analysis of the process into its component parts: social, spiritual, mental, biological, legal, organic, and so on. Yet "near-death experiences" now seem to echo elements in traditional descriptions of life after death.

Edward I. Bailey


R. Grainger, The Unburied (Worthing, U.K.: Churchman, 1988).

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