Living and Dying
The Denial of Death
Jewish Reflections on Death
For some years now people have been saying that death is to us what sex was to the Victorians, suppressed as a topic in ordinary society, repressed as a future certainty by most people most of the time, something children should be shielded from, for they are not to be admitted to the bedside of the dying or allowed to see dead human bodies and they are told stories about death analogous to the stories that used to be told, perhaps still are told in prim circles, about gestation and birth. Death is now prettified out of existence by the relentless and mendacious undertaking industry, with its euphemisms (“casket,” “passed away,” “loved one”) and its painting and mummification of the corrupting body so that it may appear to be something else. After all, sexual repression hasn’t been abolished by frankness in talk, and it may be that the repression of the thought of death is not altogether separable from sexual repression. The interest we have in necrophilia, and the repugnance we at the same time have for it, are both evident. Stories about the English necrophile Christie, who strangled women in order to copulate with them, are eagerly read. So far as I know such acts have not yet been performed on the screen or mimicked in the theater, but my information may well not be up-to-date.
Despite their being banned from polite conversation death and dying are now forcing their way into public discussion. For this there are many reasons. I choose the following as perhaps the more important. There is the now established belief that the living rather than the dead are being exploited by the undertaking industry. Exposures of its practices are popular—Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death is the best known of these—and a critical attitude to undertakers blends with an increasingly admitted discontent with doctors and hospitals. These last have changed the whole setting and process of dying (as of birth) in recent years. Formerly we were born in the bed in which we were conceived and if we were lucky we died in it or in one like it, speaking so long as we were conscious with the friends and relatives round the bed, nourished at this final moment by the sacramental ordinances of a church, and having our eyes shut by those who were closest to us in life.
Men now begin to see that the loss of the old setting for death and the pattern of mourning that surrounded it has taken from us something that helped to reconcile the dying to their condition and rendered cathartic the grief of the living. Changes in medical technology and the emasculation or decay of traditional religion have combined to present us with a situation men are coming to find disquieting. Again, changes and discoveries in medicine have raised hard questions in moral casuistry. When is a man really dead? (Discussion of this has been forced by the demand for organs that are…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.