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…

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