Although death has inexorably followed life throughout all time, historians have assumed it has no history. They generally prefer dramatic events to the great constants of the human condition—birth, childhood, marriage, old age, and death. Yet these constants have changed, however slowly and imperceptively To give birth and to die today are quite different experiences from what they were in antiquity. They differ at present within the boundaries of the United States, among the Apache, the Hopi, the Cocopa, the Mormons, the orthodox Jews, and the bourgeois of Los Angeles. Anthropologists have treated death as a rite of passage that reveals fundamental aspects of culture. But cultural historians generally keep to Culture with a capital C—or a capital K. Kulturgeschichte, a product of German universities in the nineteenth century, could learn much by following anthropologists into the field.


In the late Middle Ages, the dying man played the central part in a supernatural drama. He staged and managed his death according to a prescribed rite, conscious of the fact that he had reached the climactic moment of his life, that heaven and hell hung in the balance, and that he could save his soul by making a “good death.” L’art de bien mourir, the Ars Moriendi, became one of the most popular and widely diffused themes of literature and iconography in the fifteenth century.

The Ars Moriendi depicted a man on his deathbed surrounded by saints and demons who are struggling for the possession of his soul. The devils re-enact his sins and claim him for hell. If he resists the temptations of pride and despair, and if he sincerely repents, he dies well. His hands crossed, his head facing eastward toward Jerusalem, his face lifted toward heaven, he emits his soul with his last breath. It emerges from his mouth, looking like a newborn baby, and an angel carries it off to heaven. The spectacle reveals the medieval sense of reality, a cosmological clutter of the exalted and the base, in which ordinary objects are infused with transcendental significance. Thus the saints, devils, and bedroom furniture in the typical fifteenth-century woodcut reproduced on this page.

Medieval and early modern man had a horror of sudden death, because it might deprive him of his part in the critical, metaphysical moment. In dangerous cases, a doctor’s first duty was to get a priest. He was under a solemn obligation to warn his patients if death seemed to be even a remote possibility, because they needed time to prepare for death, to meet it according to the traditional ceremony, in bed. The deathbed scene took place in public. Priests, doctors, family, friends, even passers-by crowded into the room of the dying man. In a “good death,” he took stock of his life, called in his enemies and forgave them, blessed his children, repented his sins, and received the last sacraments. Although it varied according to his status and his era, his will regulated the burial and mourning in elaborate detail, specifying the composition of the cortege, the number of candles to be carried, the character of the burial, and the number of masses to be said for his soul. After a prescribed period of withdrawal from society in prescribed dress, the bereaved members of his family would take up life again, fortified for their own encounters with death.

The “good death” represented what Huizinga has called a “cultural ideal,” not actuality, for in the age of the Black Death people died miserably and profligately. In times of famine, corpses were found with grass in their mouths. In times of plague, the dying were often abandoned and their bodies piled up and burned or tossed without ceremony into mass graves. At all times, death was familiar and all-pervasive; it was even an object of jokes and social comment, as in the popular literature on the “Dance of Death.” In Europe 300 years ago, 600 years ago, public executions were spectator sports; children found dead vagrants in haylofts—“croquants” who had “croaked”; and graveyards served as meeting grounds for playing games, pasturing cattle, peddling wares, drinking, dancing, and wenching.

Instead of presiding over his death, modern man is “robbed” of it, to use the expression of Philippe Ariès. About 80 percent of the deaths in the United States now occur in hospitals and nursing “homes.” Most Americans die in isolation, surrounded by strangers, medical technicians, instead of their families. The priest has been replaced by the doctor, whose training gives him no way of satisfying the psychological needs of the dying and who hides death from the patient. The patient therefore shuffles into death unknowingly: far from being exposed to any ultimate reality, he dies as if death were merely the last drop in the graph on the temperature chart.

The inhumanity of this painless positivism has generated a considerable debate and a large literature in medicine, psychology, and sociology. Recently, hospitals and medical schools have modified their practices. But the problem concerns more than hospital management. As Herman Feifel, Robert Fulton, W. Lloyd Warner, Avery Weisman, and other social scientists have shown, it touches a taboo embedded deep in American culture.


The art and literature of the High Middle Ages dwelt on the worms, dirt, and decomposition that overcome corpses. Baroque art also emphasized death in a spirit of macabre realism. Nineteenth-century cemeteries proclaimed their function with a lavishness that James S. Curl has characterized as “the Victorian celebration of death.” But the art of the American mortician paints death to look like life, sealing it up in water-tight caskets and spiriting it away to graveyards camouflaged as gardens. Americans take refuge in euphemisms: “passing away,” “terminal case,” “malignancy.”

They also deritualize death. No longer do their bereaved set themselves apart by wearing black or withdrawing from social functions for a specified time. Wakes are almost extinct; many bereaved families discourage the ritual gesture of sending flowers, requesting instead that friends give donations to charities. Children frequently do not attend funerals of close relatives, and their parents avoid discussing the subject of death (not sex) with them. The code of behavior at funerals prescribes the suppression of grief. Presidential widows have set a standard of not “cracking”—the antithesis of an earlier ideal, which made weeping obligatory.

The extreme in the repressive, unceremonial treatment of death seems to have been attained by the professional classes in England—a case of ritualistic vacuum, which Geoffrey Gorer has documented movingly in Death, Grief, and Mourning in Comtemporary Britain (London, 1965). Gorer laments the disappearance of rites for expressing grief and for comforting the bereaved. But the more ritualistic “American way of death” has been condemned just as strongly by Jessica Mitford, who contends in a book published a few years ago that commercial interests have taken over the expression of grief in this country and exploited it for their own profit. In both countries death has been transformed into the opposite of what it was five hundred years ago.


How did this transformation come about? Philippe Ariès, the masterful social historian who wrote Centuries of Childhood, was one of the first to recognize it and has tried to trace its stages in his latest book, Western Attitudes toward Death. He argues that the “traditional” view of death took hold of men’s minds during the millennium after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Early medieval men saw death as a collective destiny, ordinary, inevitable, and not particularly fearsome, because it would engulf all Christians, like a great sleep, until they would awaken in paradise at the Second Coming of Christ.

Between 1000 and 1250, this attitude shifted in emphasis from the collectivity to the individual; and from the late Middle Ages until the late eighteenth century, death served primarily to sharpen one’s sense of self. It became the supreme moment in the personal journey toward salvation. But if mismanaged, it could lead to damnation, as the Ars Moriendi made clear. Death therefore became more dramatic, but it remained essentially the same—a familiar presence, acting openly in the midst of life—and the same rituals sufficed in dealing with it. Men sought to die the “good death,” in their beds and in public, resolute, repentant, and fortified by the sacrament for eventual elevation to the Celestial Court.

By the nineteenth century, this ritual became charged with a new sense of affection. Death meant primarily the separation of loved ones. Instead of seeming ordinary, it became a catastrophic rupture with the familiar and the familial; for the family took charge of it but ultimately proved unequal to the burden of grief. Death plunged the bereaved into a terrifying realm of irrationality, an experience evoked by the morbid themes in romantic literature and the Dionysian emotionalism of nineteenth-century tomb sculpture. In the mid-twentieth century, Westerners attempted to avoid the paroxysm of grief by interdicting death. First in the United States, then in Britain, Northern Europe, and now in Latin countries, they have abandoned the traditional ritual, hidden death from the dying person, and transferred it from the family to the hospital, where the abandoned “patient” passes imperceptibly out of life by degrees, his “terminal” moment being a technicality instead of a dramatic act over which he presides.

It is an astounding story, told with the incisiveness and mastery characteristic of Ariès’s work; but is it true? The rules of evidence in this kind of history—the study of change in attitudes or “mentalités“—remain vague. Shifts in world view normally occur at a glacial pace, unmarked by events and without visible turning points. The subject matter of this history cannot be treated in the same way as the battles, election victories, and stock market fluctuations that punctuate “l’histoire événémentielle” with such precision. Mentalités need to be studied over “the long term,” and Ariès produces all these phrases in the first sentence of his book, as if he were an ambassador from the Annales school of history presenting his credentials to the Johns Hopkins University, which invited him to report on his work in a series of lectures.


The book that resulted from these lectures includes four essays on four phases of Western attitudes toward death: the traditional “tamed” death of the first millennium of Christianity, the more personal death of the next 750 years, the family-oriented obsession with “thy death,” which prevailed from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, and the “forbidden death” of the last thirty years. Very formal and very French, the book is organized in a way that may seem too schematic. But it has the advantage of showing how cultural mutation can occur at different paces. Western attitudes turned and twisted at an accelerating speed until they spun out of control in the contemporary era, which Ariès characterizes forcefully as a time of “a brutal revolution in traditional ideas and feelings.”

In discussing the current century, Ariès argues from a position of strength, because he can draw on the work of social scientists like Gorer, who first exposed the deritualization and denial in contemporary attempts to deal with death. Ariès might even have taken his argument further by drawing more on the growing literature about death in psychology, sociology, and “thanatology.”1 In analyzing older attitudes toward death, he has less to stand on but more to contribute, for he has mapped an unknown zone of human consciousness as it evolved through time. The audacity of the undertaking must be admired, even if it bears no more relation to reality than the cartography of Amerigo Vespucci. Gorer could study contemporary British attitudes by scientific sampling, questionnaires, and interviews. Ariès had to piece together whatever fragments he could find, rummaging about in archaeology, semantics, literature, law, and iconography.

Fascinating as the evidence is, its heterogeneity and sparseness inevitably weaken the argument. For example, Ariès asserts that man’s vision of the Last Judgment shifted significantly between the seventh and the fifteenth centuries; and to prove his case he refers to one seventh-century tomb, a half-dozen tympana from twelfth- and thirteenth-century cathedrals, a thirteenth-century hymn, and a fifteenth-century fresco. The reader is left to imagine the counterexamples from the art of those eight centuries, which flash by in four pages.

As evidence of the way death became individualized between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, Ariès stresses the importance of donation plaques in churches and cites one example, from 1703. To document the public character of the medieval deathbed rite, he cites one source from the late eighteenth century. He casually strides across continents and over centuries, and carries the reader effortlessly from King Arthur’s Round Table to Tolstoy’s mir and Mark Twain’s gold country. This fast play with sources may be less illegitimate than it seems, because vestiges of ancient customs survived well into the modern period everywhere in the West. But without firm evidence that the customs flourished earlier, one cannot know whether their later existence really was vestigial. Long-term history has not earned an exemption from the requirement of rigorous documentation.

The difficulty is greatest in research directed at the masses, who lived and died without leaving any trace of their conception of life and death. Ariès generally skirts this problem by restricting his discussion to high culture and the upper classes. When he expounds early medieval attitudes, he turns to the Chanson de Roland. When he reaches the nineteenth century, he cites Lamartine and the Brontës. He uses art history constantly but normally limits himself to the art of the elite.

The most important exception to this tendency and the most original part of the book comes in Ariès’s discussion of burial customs and cemetery design. He argues that early Christian burial reversed the practice of Roman patricians, who were buried in individual mausoleums outside the cities. The early Christians had a quasi-magical belief in the efficacy of interment near the remains of saints, and therefore favored burial in churches located in the center of towns. For a millennium this burial remained essentially collective. The rich and well-born were placed under slabs of the church floor, the common people in ditches in the churchyard. As each location filled, the bones were transferred to common ossuaries and charnel houses, where they were stacked and displayed with macabre artistry. At the same time, cattle, children, shopkeepers, and bawds surged through the cemeteries.

The promiscuous interpenetration of death and life struck Europeans as natural until the late eighteenth century, when enlightened French administrators considered it unhealthy and unseemly, forbade burial in churches, and moved graveyards outside city limits. By that time even the common people began to be buried in individual plots. The personal grave, surmounted by a stone with a biographical inscription, came to be seen as an inviolable preserve in the nineteenth century. Families visited it, to honor their own dead both privately and on ceremonial occasions like All Souls’ Day. A veritable new cult of the dead came into existence, especially in Latin Europe, where elaborate museums and statuary transformed the appearance of cemeteries. Then suddenly, during the last few decades, this tendency was reversed. In contemporary Britain most people are cremated and therefore leave behind no physical testimony to their existence; their survivors rarely put up plaques or make inscriptions in the “Books of Remembrance” provided by the crematoria.

Burial customs therefore illustrate Ariès’s contention that Western man first conceived of death as the familiar, collective fate of all Christians, then looked upon it as the supreme moment of a biography, next infused it with familial affection, and finally attempted to deny it altogether. The resistance to cremation, the ceremonial funeral “homes,” and the elaborate cemeteries of contemporary America do not fit this pattern; and Ariès does not explain why deritualization should be so muted here, where the “revolution” allegedly began, rather than in Britain, where it has assumed its most extreme form. But he uncovers some fascinating and unfamiliar aspects of Western culture.

Throughout most of the book, however, Ariès tries to understand the popular mentality through the analysis of “high” culture, a dubious method, particularly when applied to relatively recent history. In the Middle Ages, it is true, elite and popular culture had not gone their separate ways. The common man carved his cosmology onto his church, where art historians like Erwin Panofsky have been able to decipher it. Millard Meiss in Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death has related the stylistic trends in Tuscan art to a general crisis in late medieval civilization, a crisis in which the Black Death played a crucial part.

Huizinga discussed the same crisis in The Waning of the Middle Ages, a masterpiece that was inspired by the painting of the van Eycks. Alberto Tenenti has attempted, with less success, to glimpse world view through Renaissance art in Il senso della morte e l’amore della vita nel Rinascimento and La vie et la mort à travers l’art du XVe siècle. And historians of medieval and Renaissance literature—Jean Rousset and Theodore Spencer, for example—have explored the connections between high culture and general attitudes toward death. This approach has proved to be especially useful in the study of genres like Elizabethan tragedy and of specific works, like the Faerie Queene, which, as Kathrine Koller has shown, contains motifs derived from the popular Ars Moriendi.

So Ariès can draw on a rich scholarly tradition, and he does so with imagination and erudition. It seems regrettable that he leans heavily on Tenenti, when he could have used the more thorough studies of the Ars Moriendi by Mary Catharine O’Connor and Nancy Lee Beaty. He also makes little use of another popular genre, the Dance of Death, which has been studied by J.M. Clark and others. But he cannot be faulted for failing to incorporate traditional cultural history in his “histoire des mentalités.” The fault lies rather in a failure to question the connections between art and the inarticulate. When and to what extent did “high” culture become severed from the lower classes? That problem could be crucial to the history of popular attitudes, but Ariès rarely mentions class at all.

Gorer found striking differences in the way different classes respond to death in contemporary Britain. He discovered, for example, that the isolation of the dying becomes much greater as one ascends the social scale (family members were present at one of every three deaths in the working-class cases he studied and at one of every eight among the upper middle and professional classes). Working-class persons seemed considerably more familiar with death and less frightened of it, and they tended to preserve older customs longer (in four-fifths of working-class homes the blinds are drawn after a death in the family; they are drawn in two-thirds of middle-class homes; and the upper-middle-professional classes apparently have abandoned the practice altogether). The cultural significance of death may have varied enormously among different social groups, and it may have evolved among them in very different patterns. Ariès ignores such nuances and concentrates on the general Western pattern, assuming that there was one and that it can be known by studying the elite.

Those assumptions, though unproven, may be valid, and Ariès may well have succeeded in the monumental task of tracing the general outline of the changing Western attitudes toward death. How then does he explain them? His explanation is implicit and derives from his earlier study of childhood and the family. In the millennium of “tamed death,” he argues, men and women were absorbed almost immediately into the collectivity without passing through any clearly defined stage of childhood and without developing strong ties to their families. By the end of the eighteenth century, the family had taken over the socialization of the child, and childhood itself was perceived for the first time as a crucial phase of an individual’s development. In response to a new demographic pattern, which made childhood and marriage less vulnerable to mortality, the family became the dominant institution in society: hence the nineteenth-century cult of the dead. Far from having declined, as some maintain, the family is now the focus of the affections. A death in the family therefore leaves modern man paralyzed by grief, for he has little emotional investment in other institutions, and he has but the empty remains of traditional ritual and religiosity to help him through his bereavement.

The argument might seem convincing, if Ariès had proved the thesis of his Centuries of Childhood, a brilliant book but one that makes the history of childhood hang on the slender thread of the history of education, especially secondary and higher education. Since few children had any formal education before the modern period, it seems unlikely that educational institutions had much effect on general attitudes toward childhood. But all children had families. Contrary to what Ariès asserts, no evidence indicates that the family did not handle the socialization of children at all times in Western Europe and, for that matter, in all other societies.2 The cohesion of the family probably varied considerably throughout Western history, and it may be stronger than ever today; but it could have been quite strong in the Middle Ages. In building an unsubstantiated interpretation of the evolution of attitudes toward death on an unsubstantiated interpretation of the evolution of the family, Ariès has stacked his hypotheses so precariously that they may collapse.

Yet he has produced an important and challenging book. He has added little to what he had written previously,3 but he has fused his insights into one eloquent synthesis—and he covers almost two millennia in one hundred pages. It would be unreasonable to expect him to prove his argument in such a brief account. Though the product of years of research and reflection, his book is really an essay and deserves to be evaluated as such. The historical essay gives the historian an opportunity to try out hypotheses, to take risks, confront big subjects and ask big questions without feeling constrained to prove a case. It is a genre in decline, owing to the prevalence of the scholarly article, a safer and more trivial form. But Ariès has breathed new life in it. He has enriched history with a supply of hypotheses that will reorient research, even if many of them prove to be false.

(This is the first of two articles.)

This Issue

June 13, 1974