Burying the Dead

The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris

by Richard A. Etlin
MIT Press, 441 pp., $37.50

Mankind is a peculiar species in that the essential moments in our biological development are all given meaning and form by culture. Being born, growing up, eating, coming of age, pairing off, growing old, being sick, and dying—all are events or successive stages in natural life that have to be interpreted by the discourse of culture and given structure by the symbols of discourse. The study of these structures was long the prerogative of the ethnologist or the folklorist. Then it became the legitimate concern of the student of classical antiquity. It was a long time before these institutions began to be “scientifically” studied as they exist within our own civilization, no doubt because our excessive proximity to them made sociological detachment difficult. But since the beginning of the century, historians have responded to the sociologists’ challenge, and their attitude has begun to change. The originality of the “new history” is to have turned its attention to everyday life, eating habits, table manners, sexuality, the family, the treatment of the sick, death, and so on, in their social and economic setting.

No doubt the changes our society has experienced and the new problems that perplex people today have contributed greatly to stimulating the interest we feel in what preceded them; we have, that is, become drawn to the history of the cultural structures which we regard as outdated but for which our present discontents sometimes make us feel a certain nostalgia.

This is particularly obvious in the case of death. The importance we attach nowadays to preserving life, the growing resources we allocate to health and in particular to hospitals, have contributed to our cutting off the sick, and above all the dying, from their families. A person’s last illness and death were once surrounded by a religious ceremonial in the midst of the family; nowadays death has been reduced to a technical failure in a world governed by scientific reason. People have talked of a “medicalization” of death, but this medicalization is itself only the effect of a general secularization of society. This is the cause of the “solitude of the dying” which has been much discussed and whose many implications—not all of them to the credit of our civilization—have been penetratingly analyzed by Norbert Elias in a recent essay.

Studies of the history of death have usually concerned the last days of the dying person, the provisions of wills, the family circle, and the comforts of religion—whether present or absent—at the deathbed. This kind of history, which concerns itself with behavior preceding death, can be called “thanatology.” Another kind of history studies the staging of the cult of the dead, the honors paid to them and the monuments that perpetuate their memory, and this we might baptize “taphology.” This second type is most certainly of interest for social history and the history of mentalities; in addition, because the place of burial, and above all the tomb and the cemetery, are all …

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