Chapter 1: The Challenge of Death
A History of the Portrayal of Death
The Ancient Perspective
•Interest in the area of death and dying and bereavement, called thanatology, has been sporadic.
•Death is not a natural outcome of life, but a curse imposed on human kind by a vengeful power in
retribution for humankinds’ wrongdoing.
•In the Bible’s book of Genesis, Adam and Eve, is told to explain the origins of death and suffering. God
gave Adam and Eve a perfect place to live, the Garden of Eden. Their only restriction was that they could
not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve was tempted by the Devil and she ate the fruit and so did Adam.
God discovered this and in anger punished them by sending them to a world where they would be masters
but they would know what pain and death was.
•Sir James Frazer found four categories that the majority of death origin myths fit into:
1. The two messengers: Prevalent in Africa. This tale is about how God sends two animal messengers
to humankind. The first is charged with God’s message that human beings will not die. The second
animal must deliver the message that human beings will die. The second messenger was fast and
that was the message received by the humankind, which was human beings will eventually die.
2. The waxing and waning moon: In these tales, the people lived, died and then lived again in cycles,
like the waxing and waning of the moon. In some way, human beings lost this ability, leaving only
the moon to remind them of their former abilities. The Hindu beliefs in the rebirth of the soul for
into this category: the Yogic spiritual tradition of the Vedas, tells us of the death of the body but the
rebirth of the soul in a new body.
3. The serpent and his cast skin: This is typified by the Melanesian myth in which God who hated
snakes, sent a messenger to tell people to shed their skins in renewal and so live eternally. The
messenger was also directed to tell snakes to shed their skins and die. The messenger however made
an error and reversed the messages so that fate was sealed: “snakes lived forever” and human being
4. The banana tree: People ask God for something other than what has been given to them. In the
version told in the Celebes, the people ask for a change from the food that God has been giving
them, and God lets down a stone on a rope. People protest and God next lets down a banana on a
rope, which people receive happily. But God tells them that in punishment for their demands they
will be like the banana tree and die after they have produced their own fruit, children.
•Conviction of afterlife was believed in Egypt. The individual was thought to have at least 4 types of soul,
which would live on in various ways after the death of the body. The Great Tombs of Egypt, the Pyramids,
stand as a tribute to the Egyptian belief in immortality, providing a dwelling and a place to store items
needed for life after death. Death was not an end but a transition to another plane of existence,
•The ancient Greeks regarded death a passage into afterlife as well. But that afterlife was not pleasant.
Homer in the Odyssey, made this so. In 1000BC Odeyssus travels to the land of the dead where he meets
dead heroes and friends who wish for the joys of an earthly existence. Plato, in The Rpublic, paints a picture
of an afterlife that has hell and heaven. After spending 1000 years in one of these realms, the individual
may choose to be reborn as human or animal. 00 BCE
•The ancient Isealities, before 600 BC, regarded death as a transition to a shadowy underworld where life
went n in a limited fashion. After 600 BCE, when the belief in monotheism developed the belief in the
underworld, Sheol continued. Existence was marginal and the dead were isolated from living people and
from God. From the Babylon captivity to the 4th century, death still meant a transition to Sheol, but now
people who had been good and faithful were expected to be resurrected to live for another 500 years. Then
they died again and remained dead for eternity. Virtuous people were thought to live very long and have
•After the invasion of the Palestine by Alexander the Great, the belief changed to the idea that all the dead
will be judged by God and sent to an eternal reward or eternal punishment. As time went on, emphasis was
placed on living the virtuous life.
•The advent of Christianity in the first century brought a belief in death leading to an afterlife to be
determined by the individual’s deeds and beliefs while living. The Islam shared this belief. Both religions
see death as the ending of only life on earth; life eternal after death.
The Classification of Philippe Aries
•Social historian Phillipe Aries examined the history of Western culture’s view of death from a psychological
oHe stated that a society’s view of death was organized around the individuals’ self-awareness, the
defense of society against the uncontrollability of nature, the belief in afterlife, and the belief in the
existence of evil. From these themes, Aries derived 5 models of death:
1. The Tame Death: Society’s aim is to tame death through ceremonies and rules in the belief system.
The individual is connected to this or her society. When an individual dies all society is affected and
weakened. Thus the society feels insecure and anxious and vulnerable to defend itself. Ceremonies
are done to represent the death and it is a celebration that the society rejoices in its ability to absorb
the death and to reaffirm the continuity of society. The afterlife is considered a place where the
dead wait for final judgment. The dead who have been virtuous may sleep peacefully but those who
did not, can’t rest and may return to haunt the living.
oAries states that to tame this aspect of death, society makes rules that the dead can return
only on certain days such as Halloween or Hallows Eve, when society can guard itself
against the effects of the deads’ return.
oSome ceremonies keep the dead asleep so that they will not return to haunt anybody.
2. The Death of the Self: In large societies, the concept of individualism predominates. A person is
no loner regarded as interwoven within society and is seen as a distinct being whose destiny lies
apart from other people. In many, societies the individual death was concealed with a ceremonial
covering of the dead person’s face and removal of the body to a casket, which often remain closed.
At death the individual who had been so distinct in life was expected to continue being distinct. The
dead could control and indicate their wishes from beyond the grave. The dead were seen as
asserting their indivudal identities through their wills. The dead were living in some fashion in the
afterlife either in Heaven or Hell.
3. Remote and Imminent Death: According to Aries, before the 16th century, death had been tamed
by the ceremony and belief system surrounding it. Then change took place and death started to be
seen as violent. By 18th century the Western word ad experienced technological advances.
4. The Death of the Other:
5. The Invisible Death:
6. A Contemporary View:
The History of Hospice Palliative Care