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Death and Its History

L’Homme devant la mort fall of 1979)

by Philippe Ariès
Editions du Seuil (Paris), 642 pp., 69F (knopf will publish an English translation by Helen Weaver in the

Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present

by Philippe Ariès, translated by Patricia M. Ranum
Johns Hopkins University Press, 111 pp., $2.45 (paper)


To judge by the archaeological evidence, it seems clear that, in one respect at least, Freud was wrong. The discontents of civilization seem to have been focused not on the suppression of the id but rather on apprehensions about the prospects and nature of life after death. Some of the most gigantic constructions, some of the most splendid and extravagant works of art, some of the most complex rituals have all been devoted to the interment, housing, and equipping of the dead, in preparation for the journey of the soul beyond the grave. By 500,000 BC, Peking man was already burying his dead with ceremonial ritual. By 50,000 BC, burial rituals were highly developed, and by 7,000 BC ancestor worship was flourishing at Ur.

We still stand amazed at the pyramids of the Pharaohs at Giza, at the gigantic burial mound of Silbury Hill—the largest man-made structure in Europe—at the towering pyramid tomb of the High Priest deep in the Yucatan forest at Palenque, at the beehive tombs at Mycenae, at the great multichambered megalithic tombs in the long barrows of northwest Europe. The museums of the world are crammed with the funerary equipment of dead kings and nobles. In Cairo is displayed the golden furniture of Tutankhamen; in London, the jewelry, silver plates, and ornamented shield from the ship burial cenotaph of the Anglo-Saxon king at Sutton Hoo; in Athens the golden mask of a Mycenaean king; in Châteaudun, the gigantic classical Greek bronze krater, carted half across Europe and then buried with an unknown Celtic princess at Vix. The examples are endless, but the conclusion is obvious: men could, they believed, take it with them, and it had to be nothing but the best.

Of course these gargantuan treasure-filled monuments served a social as well as a ritual purpose. Even the hidden grave-goods were far grander than was strictly necessary for the functional dispatch of the soul on its posthumous journey. The superstructures were the product of an edifice-complex, vain-glorious displays of the social status of both the dead and the living survivors, who could afford not only to bury forever underground such fabulous riches but also to waste so much scarce manpower on the erection of eye-catching symbols of immortality. Moreover, the sheer opulence of the furnishings and the not infrequent inclusion of slaughtered concubines and slaves show that the grave goods were also intended to bring pleasure to the deceased. They were meant to allow him to enjoy the same luxuries, the same sensual indulgences, the same sumptuous style of life in the next world as he did in this. In stark contrast to Christ’s belief that it is more difficult for a rich man to get into Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, the kings and nobles of pagan antiquity expected to have it good in both worlds.

That the servicing of the soul was the critical function, however, is proven by the success of the great monotheist religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in putting an end to this practice of equipping the dead with material goods for a journey. Wives, concubines, slaves, horses, ships, chariots, armor, weapons, furniture, and jewelry no longer accompanied their owners into the grave, since these objects no longer served the dead in the afterlife. Because of its belief in the ultimate resurrection of the body, Christianity also placed limits on the nature of the interment: cremation ceased to be a “viable option.” At the same time, the size of funerary monuments also shrank. On the other hand, Christianity did nothing to stop the elaboration of the rituals surrounding the act of dying, the rituals of mourning and the funeral, and rituals to appease or assist the souls of the dead.

This persistent and universal belief in an afterlife is a very odd phenomenon. It is as if the rational part of the brain makes man unique in his awareness that the one inevitable event in his life is death, while at a deeper level of consciousness the more intuitive part of the brain cannot reconcile itself to the fact of the inescapable extinction of oneself and those to whom one is attached. The individual therefore postulates the existence of the soul, as an entity which will live on after his physical decay. It almost looks as if for half a million years the two parts of the brain have been irreconcilably at war with each other, each refusing to accept the conclusions of the other. As Erwin Panofsky pointed out, “There is hardly any sphere of human experience where rationally incompatible beliefs so easily coexist, and where pre-logical, one might almost say metalogical, feelings so stubbornly survive in periods of advanced civilization as in our attitudes towards the dead.”1 A final twist to the paradox is that the concept of rationality developed in the West in the eighteenth century concurrently with the concept of individualism. In consequence the probability of personal extinction became at the same time more logically compelling and more emotionally unacceptable. The intellectual and psychological tension has actually intensified in the last 200 years.

Which brings us back to Freud, who postulated an eternal conflict between Eros and Thanatos. This theme was given a historical dimension in that most brilliant work of the neo-Marxist school, Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, and is reflected in recent popular slogans of the young, such as “Make Love, Not War.” In biological fact, however, sex and death are causally linked. Nature sees to it that any species which reproduces the genes by sexual union of two individuals has built-in mechanisms which ensure the elimination of the parents, so as to allow space for the new genetic material to grow and to reproduce in its turn. In other words, death is essential to genetic diversification by sexual union.

There is incontrovertible evidence that preoccupation with death has absorbed a significant amount of both psychic energy and economic output in the West from the first to the nineteenth centuries, that the elaboration of a vision of Heaven and Hell has been the theme of the greatest poets from Dante to Milton, and that most of the greatest sculptors of the West, like Michelangelo, have devoted much of their time and talents to funerary monuments. Despite all this, until very recently death has been a subject barely touched upon by the historians. Art historians have long been compelled to pay more attention, distinguished examples being the books of A. Tenenti and Erwin Panofsky.2

Panofsky was the first to offer the key distinction between “prospective” art and ritual, designed magically to manipulate the future, either to make the souls of the dead happy in their afterlife or to prevent them from bothering the living, and “retrospective” art and ritual designed merely to commemorate the past achievements of the dead. He also pointed out how the Pauline doctrine of salvation by faith alone, which later became so central to Protestant theology, eliminated in theory the retrospective element and focused funerary art upon deliverance from the dangers of the afterlife.

It was not until the Renaissance that stress on retrospective personal glory increased, and with it the size and opulence of the visible monument over the grave: witness Brou, Innsbrück, Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey, or the royal tombs at Saint Denis. Admittedly these are displays of family pride rather than protection against the malevolent actions of ghosts or comfort for the soul in the afterlife. Nevertheless, even in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ancient underlying motive remains: timor mortis conturbat me, a fear demonstrated by the persistence of the transi, the image of the naked corpse either in rigor mortis, slit open and sewn up by the embalmer, or in full decomposition and being devoured by worms.


Before we examine Philippe Ariès’s huge book, it is helpful to know something about the author. M. Ariès is not a professional historian, but a man who earns his living as the head of an information center in a research institute on tropical fruit. Although he studied history in the usual way at the Sorbonne, he failed his agrégation in 1943, and abandoned a career as a professional historian. He is also unusual in Paris intellectual circles, since he is a pious Catholic and since he comes out of, and has remained loyal to, a milieu strongly attached to right-wing nationalism, ultra-royalism, and nostalgic traditionalism, and since he was for some considerable time an active member of the Action Française.3

As will be seen, this personal background is essential to an understanding of the author’s work. It also explains why M. Ariès is the odd man out in French historiography. Although his interest in mentalités is now suddenly fashionable in the great and dominant Annales school of historians in Paris, although his mixture of anti-Enlightenment philosophy and historical ethnography is very close indeed to that of the current Parisian guru, Michel Foucault, he is nevertheless a prophet without much honor in his own country. In England and America, however, his book Centuries of Childhood4 has had a stunning impact, partly because of its sheer originality and boldness, partly because of good timing, coinciding as it did with Erikson’s work on childhood and intensive public rethinking about modes of upbringing. It has been one of the most influential works of history of the 1960s, stimulating an outburst of research into family history which is now in full flood in America and England. For an amateur and a foreigner, this is a remarkable, indeed a unique achievement. And now he has done it again, providing a sweeping model of change in attitudes toward death over a thousand years, which is likely to have the same ripple effect as did Centuries of Childhood.

Ariès postulates five main stages in the slow, erratic, overlapping evolution of attitudes toward death from the ninth to the twentieth centuries, each stage being identified by what in fact appear to be different definitions of the nature of man in relation to death. The first is not really a stage but a condition, based on a structure of belief which runs unaltered among the masses right up to the nineteenth century, and which he calls “We All Die.” The key ritual is the deathbed scene: a public display of repentance and calm acceptance of the end. Death is not particularly frightening, and the fate of the individual is quietly subordinated to the future of the collectivity, the society, the status group, and the family. Life after death is no more than a kind of sleep, for an indeterminate period.

The second stage, labeled “Death of Self,” emerged in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, and only affected the intellectual and social elite. It is characterized by the concept of the Last Judgment, when God will determine the fate of each soul on the basis of personal behavior during life; by the transformation of the mass for the dead from an occasional collective ritual to a frequent instrument for the salvation of a particular soul; and by a shift in emphasis from the deathbed to the funeral, performed as an ostentatious theatrical display; all of which would explain the increased use of the written will to make provision for the funeral, burial, and masses for the soul. These shifts were caused by a shift in the balance of emphasis from the collectivity to the individual, expressed by a fierce love of life and all the material goods of this world. Moreover, the immortal soul is clearly separated from the rotting flesh. In northern Europe the face of the deceased was covered up, while at the same time the art of the macabre was displaying the unseen corpse in full corrupt decay. Ariès sees this macabre art not as a reflection of human despair generated by the Black Death and the atrocities of the Hundred Years War, as Huizinga believed, but as the counterpart of a passionate lust for life and material possessions.

  1. 1

    Erwin Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture (Abrams, 1964), p. 9.

  2. 2

    Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture; A. Tenenti, La Vie et la mort à travers l’art du XVième siècle (Paris, 1952); A. Tenenti, Il Senso della morte e l’amore della vita nel Rinascimento (Turin, 1957).

  3. 3

    See the revealing interview of Philippe Ariès with André Burguière published in Le Nouvel Observateur, February 20, 1978.

  4. 4

    Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood Knopf, 1962.

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