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.

The third stage, labeled “Protracted and Imminent Death” (taken from a somewhat obscure phrase of Madame de La Fayette, “la mort longue et proche“), deals with a change in the defenses against nature, undermined, if I understand it correctly, by the Enlightenment. Both sex and death resume, their savage untamed power, expressed most strikingly in the work of the Marquis de Sade. The agony and the orgasm are reunited in a single sensation, symbolized by the erection allegedly experienced by men as they are hanged.

The fourth stage, labeled “Thy Death,” is the product of the rise of familial attachment to lover, child, spouse, or parent. This new phenomenon, which was linked to the growth of privacy and of the close emotional bonding of the nuclear family, I have elsewhere defined as “affective individualism.”5 In the eighteenth century it certainly became, for the first time, the predominant psychological driving force of the elite in northwest Europe. Pathetic grief at the loss of a loved one, now unrestrained by traditional ritual, consequently becomes the normal response to death, and the center of attention shifts from the dying to the bereaved. Emphasis again shifts to the individual, this time to the survivor rather than the dying man. At the same time, romanticism transforms death from a thing of fear to a thing of beauty. It is now almost eagerly anticipated, especially by those millions dying slowly and gracefully of tuberculosis, while alarm about the prospect of eternal torment in Hell subsides. The belief in the connections between sin, suffering, and death has been decisively altered. As a result, death becomes merely a staging point, a preparation for the reunion of loved ones in the next world.

Finally the twentieth century develops such a phobia of death that it is banished altogether. This fifth stage, labeled rather obscurely “Inverted Death” (rather than “Forbidden Death,” which would have been much better) flourishes most strongly in England and America. As sex emerges from the closet, death is pushed back into it, not to be spoken of in polite society. Dying is left to medical technology and takes place no longer in the home but in a hospital. Funerals are abbreviated and simplified, cremation becomes normal, mourning is thought of as a form of mental sickness. Man is defined as the doctors see him, a mere assemblage of obsolescent organs. In his revulsion from the modern scientific approach to the human being. Ariès goes so far as to compare this medicalization of death to what he regards as the medicalization of sex, the anti-masturbation drive of the late nineteenth century—a bizarre linkage of ideas that seems to have nothing in its favor except a (not unreasonable) desire to attack the tyranny of the modern medical profession.

More persuasively, he argues that these latest developments are the product of a sharp decline in belief in survival after death, and a further evolution of individualism as the dying man has become so enveloped by familial solicitude that the truth about his disease and even his imminent death are carefully concealed from him, for fear of making him miserable. This is, Ariès concludes, the last hurrah of the Jeffersonian Enlightenment ideal of the Pursuit of Happiness: since death is obviously a threat to happiness, it is not only banished from human sight and conversation, it is even concealed from its victim.

In America, reaching its apogee at Forest Lawn, the reality of death is hidden also from the survivor, thanks to the art of the embalmer. Cheeks are plumped up with injected waxes and the face and hands are given elaborate cosmetic treatment. The corpse is exposed in its coffin for public inspection, but now made to look younger, handsomer, happier than in real life. No one worries that homeless ghosts or evil spirits may occupy this all too carefully preserved flesh.

Ariès does not mention the sixth and newest phase, which began in about 1970 and is characterized by a growing revulsion against the mechanical, spareparts view of man, a reassertion of his right to decide how and when and where he will die. Death, like madness and magic, is now out in the open again, which is what makes L’Homme devant la mort so timely. It is curious how much this right-wing traditionalist has in common with the left-wing radical Michel Foucault, not only in their historical methodology of the ethnographic packrat but also in their basic interests and their conclusions about the nature of our society and the diseases that afflict it. Both authors share a common distaste for some of the characteristic institutions of our optimistic, rationalist, post-Enlightenment world of social engineers, the prison, the insane asylum, the hospital.


What are we to make of this extraordinary book? There is no doubt at all that it has supplied all future historians of death with a benchmark—and a target. Just as Ariès some years ago provided a model against which all subsequent work on the history of childhood had to be measured, so now all future work on the history of death will have to be illustrations, modifications, or repudiations of this gigantic enterprise of synthesis. Its imaginative sweep and its intellectual range are beyond question. Few historians have impressed their mark so forcefully upon not only one but now two important fields of inquiry. Over forty years ago, Lucien Febvre complained that “we have no history of love, death, pity, cruelty, joy.” Now, thanks in large part to the labors of one gifted, isolated amateur, some of these lacunae are being filled.

On the other hand, there can equally be no doubt that the book has serious weaknesses. In the first place, unlike Centuries of Childhood, it is very difficult to read. Indeed the only way to follow its meandering path through the dense undergrowth of the centuries is first to read the brief preliminary synopsis of the plot published in English in 1974 as Western Attitudes toward Death,6 and then to start at the end of the new book, at page 596, and read the conclusion very slowly and carefully. Without such preparation the reader is certain to lose his bearings and feel that he is plunging about in a dense fog, intermittently lit by flashes of lightning which disclose a varied and fascinating but largely unfamiliar and trackless landscape.

Some of this obscurity arises from a failure to distinguish clearly among the various elements which constitute the whole complicated death syndrome. The deathbed ritual may take place in the home, or in the poorhouse, or in the prison (common in the eighteenth century), or in the hospital (also common in the eighteenth century and normal now). It may take place in public, with or without a priest in attendance, or in isolation in a hospital.

Mourning is usually highly ritualized, with the wearing of black clothes, exposure of the body, watching, the wake, etc. In the eighteenth century it became expressive and emotional, and more recently it has been publicly suppressed altogether.

The funeral may be expensive and solemn, or cheap and hurried, as occasion or pocket dictates. It may or may not be accompanied by relatives or mourners. The place of burial in antiquity was always outside the city walls. Only the Christians put the dead in among the living, clustered around the tombs of the saints, right inside the church for the elite, and nearby in the churchyard for the masses. This practice lasted until the nineteenth century, when sheer pressure of numbers got too great, the stench of rotting bodies too intolerable, and burials were once more banned altogether from church interiors and cemeteries were removed into the distant suburbs.

The body itself may be embalmed, or incinerated, or put into a family vault, or it may first be buried and then dug up and the bones moved to an ossuary. The body may be regarded with loathing, as in the ancient world or in many places today; or with respect, as in the Middle Ages, when it was washed, prepared, and laid out in public view for the wake and even the funeral.

The monument erected over the grave may be anonymous or familial or individual in its identification. It may be prospective, concerned with the future, with imagery of the soul being lofted into Heaven by angels, or retrospective, an account and illustration of the achievements of a lifetime. It may be religious, with a stress on the Christian piety of the deceased and the hope of salvation by faith or good works, or it may be purely secular, the most striking examples of which are equestrian statues of men in armor prancing about inside churches, like that of Bartolomeo Colleoni at Bergamo. It may stress the personality or the social status or the occupation of the deceased. The judgment of God may be thought to be collective, offering eternal salvation for all believing Christians, or personal, dependent upon divine grace, the intercession of saints, the prayers of priests, or the faith or good works of the deceased. There may be two judgments, the first at death and the second at the Last Judgment, or only one. There may be two destinations, Heaven or Hell, or three, Heaven or Hell or Purgatory. Souls may spend the interval between death and the Last Judgment, when they are once more reunited with their bodies, as ghosts unhappily prowling around the living, or stashed away securely and fairly comfortably in Purgatory.

The living may regard the souls of the dead with fear and hatred as threatening spirits to be either propitiated by kindness and generosity or exorcised with magic; or as objects of pity to be helped by the lavish provision of goods for the journey, or by the hire of expensive specialists to pray for their swift passage to Heaven. The dying may have sufficient confidence in their families to leave these arrangements to them, or they may have sufficient doubts to spell them out in legally attested wills.

Given this large number of semi-autonomous rituals and concepts in the process from dying to the final disposal of body and soul, given the wide range of choices, given the extreme slowness of shifts of opinion, especially below the intellectual and social elite, given the mental ambiguity and confusion with which most of us regard the problem of death, it is hardly surprising that M. Ariès has had considerable difficulty in identifying trends and that only by heroic oversimplification can his broad stages be detected.

Even when one does find apparently overwhelming statistical evidence of change, the causes are not entirely clear. For example, Professors Michel Vovelle and Pierre Chaunu have made exhaustive quantitative studies of wills, and have proved beyond doubt that reference to the disposal of the soul (and body) tend to disappear after 1740 and are virtually gone by 1780, at any rate in Catholic Provence and Paris.7 Wills thereafter are exclusively devoted to the disposition of worldly goods. One is tempted to conclude, with Professor Vovelle, that a great tide of secularization swept over France, blotting out the intense baroque piety of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. But can we be sure? Baroque retables in the area, also studied by Professor and Madame Vovelle, show no such trend, continuing to be popular, if stereotyped in content, well into the late nineteenth century.8 It could be that the nature of piety changed into other, more spiritual, forms which do not show up in wills. In other words the statistical evidence for the rise of baroque piety seems clear enough, but the apparent decline might, in part at least, be evidence of anti-clericalism—for the clergy had been the main beneficiaries of that piety—rather than of Enlightenment secularism.

A second possibility, advanced by M. Ariès, is that the new, affectively bonded family structure of the eighteenth century relieved the dying man of the need to make legal provision for his body and soul, since he was now sure that he could rely on his loving relatives to carry out his wishes and do the right thing by him. This is an intriguing suggestion, but a purely speculative one. On the other hand, there is no sign of any diminution in the size and expense of funerary monuments in churches and churchyards in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, despite the lack of legal provision for their erection, which might argue in favor of Ariès’s thesis. Here we have a classic example in which years of patient quantification have produced results which are clear enough in themselves, but whose interpretation remains uncertain and not susceptible to a scientific solution.9

But Ariès’s own methodology also is not altogether satisfactory. He gathers up data like a jackdaw from here, there, and everywhere in the great rubbish heap of historical evidence, and scrambles it all together across time, space, religious divisions, and cultural watersheds. Many of the sources are those slippery items, romances and novels, the Chanson de Roland, Charlotte Brontë, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn. There is a certain amount of liturgical data and some study of wills, but of course not a hint of quantification—there is not a statistic in the whole 642 pages. Funerary inscriptions are put to good use, as is iconographic evidence from tomb sculpture, some of it compiled by art historians, but much assembled by Ariès himself in some forty years of travel throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean. (One of the principal difficulties in evaluating all this evidence is the failure of the publisher to provide the book with even a single plate.) Finally, there is a rag bag of information culled from folklore, descriptions of rituals, moralistic deathbed literature, family correspondence, discussions of the location and sanitation of interment in churches and cemeteries, and so on.

Ariès treatment of time and space is even more disturbing as he takes his reader on a dizzy roller coaster up and down the centuries and in and out of countries. Page sixteen swings from a comment of Châteaubriand in the early nineteenth century to an Italian text of 1490, to a story of the early eighteenth century, to a fable by La Fontaine. Page 306 includes the Chanson de Roland, La Fontaine, and Tolstoy in a single sentence, followed by references to a Chancellor of Florence in 1379 and an Italian lady of the late eighteenth century. It requires a strong head to swallow down so potent a mixture without intoxication.

Given all these reservations about his methodology how does Ariès’s chronological scheme stand up? His postulate of a more or less timeless popular belief, over the last thousand years, in a kind of sleep after death, regarded as an existential fact to be dealt with in traditional ritualistic ways, makes very good sense. His last, late twentieth-century, stage, involving destruction of this ancient belief-system thanks to the erosion of faith in an afterlife, the popularity of the medical view of man as a bundle of physical parts, and the irresistible invasion of privacy by medical technology, seems incontrovertible. But the dating of the emergence of “Death of Self,” a personalized concept of death among the elite, to the eleventh and twelfth centuries is not so convincing. There are very few spheres of human activity in which the concept of individualism can be seen emerging in the twelfth century. The alleged growing obsession with the sensual pleasures of life and with material goods is hard to document, while the personalized fear of the Last Judgment was soon mitigated by the growth of belief in Purgatory and in the power of prayers to the Virgin and the Saints and of masses for the dead to spring the soul from this transit camp. He is, however, right to point out that salvation had become less collective, less assured to all Christian believers, and more individual, dependent on good works and intercession for the remission of personal sins.

The concept of “Death of Self” is a useful one, but it should be transferred to its rightful place in the sixteenth century and ascribed primarily to those two great but mysteriously missing characters in Ariès’s story, the Renaissance and the Reformation. The former has always, and rightly, been associated with the exaltation of the individual, whether shown in Machiavelli’s Prince and Marlowe’s Tambulaine, or in the personalized portraits and busts of cinquecento art. The latter, which stressed predestination and salvation by faith alone, had the paradoxical effect, as Max Weber long ago pointed out, of increasing psychic anxiety and stimulating moral introspection, individualism, and the acquisitive instinct for worldly goods. Shifted to the sixteenth century, therefore, Ariès’s second stage can be preserved and indeed strengthened by the inclusion of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

Ariès’s third stage of “Thy Death” in the late eighteenth century is fully proven, although I would tend, on the basis of English evidence, to push its beginning back into the early part of the century. But I fully agree in associating it with the rise of family love, both between parents and children and between spouses or lovers.

The “Protracted and Imminent Death” stage is the least comprehensible and convincing of all. In so far as I understand it (and I am not at all sure that I do), the only point of it seems to be to stress the malign effects of the Enlightenment, rationalism, and science in stripping away the ancient controls over sex and death. De Sade admittedly needs explaining, but it is easy to exaggerate his cultural significance, and surely unnecessary to create a special stage in the mental structure of Western civilization in order to accommodate him.

To conclude, by dropping this one stage, and shifting up the date of another by three centuries and changing its causation, the Ariès’s scheme can be made to work in a plausible manner, and to tie in with the major shifts in the evolution of European culture.

When one asks why these changes occurred, Ariès does not offer a very clear answer. In his conclusion, he suggests that attitudes toward death are affected by changes in the relative strength and weakness of four “parameters.” The first is individualism, the relative weight attached to the self and the group. The second is the defenses erected against the erratic and uncontrollable forces of nature which constantly threaten to dissolve the social order. Of these forces, the two most dangerous, and therefore most heavily controlled, are sex and death. The third is the belief in the close linkage of sin, suffering, and death, all of them bad and all of them tied together in the myth of the “Fall.” Ariès apparently regards these four parameters as independent variables, and makes no attempt to explore the underlying factors which cause them to change. Another difficulty is that they are so broad and so vague that it is almost impossible to prove that any specific change, say a shift in burial customs, is linked to any one of them.

If one ignores this argument, which appears in the conclusion almost as an afterthought, and looks instead at the body of the text, it is apparent that the intellectual concept of individualism and the social organism of the family bulk very large in his interpretation, and one has to assume that he regards them as critical. But what he leaves out is far more surprising than what he puts in. For one thing, he tells us virtually nothing about the underlying biological and demographic facts. For a proper appreciation of the ubiquitous presence of death in premodern Europe, one is obliged to look elsewhere, for example to François Lebrun’s unforgettable picture of death in Anjou in the eighteenth century.10 Ariès never explains to his readers that the association of death with old age, which we today regard as so natural, is in fact a late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century development, and that in earlier times death struck at all ages, especially during infancy but also young adulthood. It was therefore an infinitely more familiar presence than it is with us, for whom death before the age of fifty-five is a relative rarity. Ariès’s story sweeps serenely over this great watershed in human experience of death without even mentioning it.

The reason for this omission is, presumably, because he does not think it is important. He quite rightly rejects any simplistic notion that there is a mechanical relationship between biology and behavior. He would be properly skeptical of Pierre Chaunu’s suggestion that the pessimism of the fifteenth century, the optimism of the sixteenth, the pessimism of the seventeenth, and the optimism of the eighteenth are related to changes in the mortality rates and expectations of life. 11 Even the recent suppression of death is at least as much due to medical technology and a waning belief in life after death as it is to the demographic transition.

But if demography is not the key for Ariès, then what is? He has never told us, either in his book about children or in this book about death, what causes attitudes toward such fundamental matters to alter. He barely mentions changes in either economic structure or in the modes of production. He pays far too little attention to social factors, especially aspirations for status, the desire to make a show, to maintain respectability, or to dazzle the community. For all of recorded time, men have got the funerals, the monuments, and the prayers they or their relatives have been willing to afford, and their motives for this expenditure, which in all classes has often been very heavy indeed, have been dictated as much by considerations of prestige and status as by a desire to facilitate the passage of the soul into Heaven. This is something almost entirely ignored by Ariès. Nor can he see much difference between Catholic and Protestant attitudes to death. This eliminates for him the role of Protestant and Counter-Reformation theology, which is why he misses the rise of baroque death ritual which Vovelle and Chaunu have discovered in the wills. How can he ignore a change which led half of all Christians to reject Purgatory and masses for the dead remains a mystery.

He also misses the taboo, so powerful and popular in the late seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, against any tampering with the body of the dead. This is something which explains the decline of the custom of embalming among the rich, who now reject this interference with their physical remains. Hence the horror felt at the ritual violation of the taboo as a punishment by the practice of hanging the corpse of some felons in chains, left to twist slowly, slowly in the wind, while decomposing in full public view. It also explains the great pitched battle fought in the eighteenth century around the gallows for possession of the body of ordinary hanged felons, claimed by the law and the students to be carried off as subject for an anatomy lesson by the surgeons, and claimed by relatives and the mob for a decent burial. Deeply felt popular superstitions, whether about ghosts or corpses, hardly figure in Ariès’s book.

Worse still, he virtually ignores such powerful intellectual currents as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The first leads Ariès to misdate the rise of the “Death of Self” stage by several centuries. The second leads him to underestimate the growth of anticlericalism among the elite, and the decline of belief in the afterlife among an even smaller, but very important, minority. The deists in the late eighteenth century were very active in France in destroying the traditional Catholic deathbed rituals of priestly confession and absolution. In La Nouvelle Héloïse, Rousseau shows Julie making her personal unaided peace with her Maker, surrounded by no one but her intimate family. Professor John McManners has rightly called this “an intense, introverted family affair, the supreme crisis of domestic affection.” Ariès would agree entirely, but he had not noticed the anticlerical aspect of it all. Voltaire, on the other hand, had no familial affections, and staged a stunning theatrical show, a carefully contrived and highly public display of philosophic ambiguity which kept everybody guessing until the end.

Even more difficult for Ariès to absorb into his model are the open atheists: David Hume, who so frightened Boswell by his calm acceptance of imminent personal annihilation; or the Comte de Caylus, who announced to the bishop and relatives assembled around his deathbed, hoping to bring the errant sinner to salvation,

I can see you want to talk to me for the good of my soul…. But I am going to let you into my secret: I haven’t got one.12

On the other hand Ariès must be given credit for treating culture as an independent variable in its own right. He would never talk, as Pierre Chaunu does, about “l’assault recent du quantitatif au troisième niveau,”13 partly because he is dubious about the value of quantification anyway, but still more because he refuses to treat culture, mentalité, or systems of value as a third-story superstructure, perched on the more solid foundations of economic and demographic facts and social structure. He realizes that the effects of economic and social change are great but never direct, being always mediated through the screens of culture, religion, and political power. His weakness, however, is his tendency to treat culture as the only variable, instead of one of many, which gives his explanatory model a curiously one-dimensional quality, by contrast with the extraordinary richness and variety of his evidence, and his remarkable gift for extracting significance from such diverse and contradictory materials. As a result, all that tends to be left as the moving force in history, apart from the rise of individualism and the nuclear, affection-bonded family (whose origins are obscure), is a kind of Jungian collective consciousness. Given his conservative views it is hardly surprising that this collective consciousness should show a sad declension from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, a slippage away from a quasi-mystical golden age when death came easily, naturally, and publicly.14

Despite these reservations, it would be wholly false to end on a negative note. Ariès has written a work which contains many brilliant insights and flights of imagination, as well as a mass of esoteric and fascinating information. He has given us a chronological framework of attitudes toward death over the last thousand years which makes very good sense. Anyone interested in the evolution of Western culture should read his book, exasperating though it sometimes is in its ideological prejudice, and frustrating though it often is in its failure to organize its material in a clearer and more logical manner. It is in some ways an odd, cranky, perverse, and muddled book, but there can be little doubt that it will prove to be a seminal work of historical scholarship, a major landmark in the historiography of the late twentieth century.*

(This is the first of two articles on the history of death.)

This Issue

October 12, 1978