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Western Attitudes Towards Death Essay Sample

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Western Attitudes Towards Death Essay Sample

Although the attitudes of western civilization towards death may seem to be unchanged over long periods of time, it has been illustrated in the past that they are, in fact dynamic. Western attitudes towards death are constantly evolving, ever so slowly and subtly. However, periodically quantum leaps in popular thought regarding death have occurred. These changes are noticeable because they are so very rapid. Philippe Ariès, author of Western attitudes towards death describes four distinct eras of thought with regards to death. He calls these eras Tamed death, One’s own death, Thy death, and Forbidden death. The transitions between each of these four eras are caused by significant historical events that profoundly alter the attitudes and beliefs of the masses. “Tamed death” is used by Ariès to describe the cultural view of death prior to the middle ages. During this tamed death era, death was a familiar and quite public event. The rituals of the sickbed were well known and children were even included in the deathbed scene. In his references to the chansons de geste, Ariès illustrates that both brave Knights and devout Monks approached death in the same way because “they were usually forewarned” (Ariès, p.2).

During the tamed death era it was believed that death would send a warning through either natural signs or more often an inner conviction (Ariès, p.4). Once warned, the soon to be dead would prepare to die. The ritual of dying was a process that was “organized by the dying person himself”. After having made all preparations, the dying person would calmly wait for death. The bodies of those who had died were buried in large communal graves where they decomposed until they were able to be transported to charnel houses. Often the remains of the deceased were separated and jumbled together with the remains of others. It was not the individuality of the deceased after death that was important during this era, but the concept of burial ad sanctos. It was desirable to be buried in close proximity to a sacred holy place or saint.

During the Middle Ages tamed death was subtly modified which “gradually gave a dramatic and personal meaning to man’s traditional familiarity with death” (Ariès, p. 27). The concept of a judgment at the end of one’s life is introduced. This “last judgment” gave light to a new view on death. The view is that upon death, each man was examined before Christ according to the balance sheet of his life.”Good and bad deeds are scrupulously separated and placed on the appropriate sides of the scales” (Ariès, p.32). This creation of a last judgment illustrates a belief in an existence after death, which was a stopover until the ultimate end of the world when “one’s balancing sheet will finally be closed” The transition between the tamed death era and the era of thought that Ariès calls one’s own death was caused by a heightened awareness of the individuality of the dying person. The method of burial used during the tamed death era truly illustrates the inexistence of the concept of individuality after death.

In examining the evolution of thought regarding death from the tamed death era to one’s own death era we see a movement away from mass graves towards private, clearly marked graves. Effigies with inscriptions appear over time as well. These represent the desire to individualize the burial area, perpetuating the memory of the deceased in that spot. During the era of one’s own death, we see a transition from anonymity of the deceased to individuality of the deceased. “Beginning with the eleventh century a formerly unknown relationship developed between the death of each individual and his awareness of being an individual…In the mirror of his own death each man would discover the secret of his individuality” (Ariès, p.51).

One’s own death or la mort de soi, refers to man having discovered his own individuality in death. Death then becomes the occasion when a man is most aware of himself. During the era of one’s own death we do not see a new attitude toward death replace the preceding one, “but rather subtle modifications gradually gave a dramatic and personal meaning to man’s traditional familiarity with death”. New phenomena gave light to the concern for the individuality of each person. New phenomena include the portrayal of a last judgment at the end of the world, the movement of this judgment to the precise moment of each individual’s death, macabre themes and portrayals of decomposition, and the personalization of each individual’s final resting place.

The transition between one’s own death and thy death, like the transition between tamed death and one’s own death was not a paradigm shift in thinking, but the result of gradual modifications of the preceding way of thought. Beginning in the eighteenth century, “man in western societies tended to give death a new meaning…he exalted it, dramatized it, and thought of it as disquieting and greedy” (Ariès, p.56). Emphasis was now placed on la mort de toi, the death of the other, rather than on one’s own death. The loss and memory of the deceased one inspired the creation of elaborate tombs and new cemeteries as well as the “romantic rhetorical treatment of death” (Ariès 56). This replacement of fear for one’s own death with fear for death of others was very lasting and evoked wild emotions in many. During the era of thy death we see death taking on an erotic theme. Death is portrayed in art as raping the living.

“From the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century, countless scenes or motifs in art and in literature associated death with love” (Ariès, p. 57). These erotic macabre themes are illustrated in literature, art, and theatre. Love scenes in baroque works such as Romeo and Juliet took place in such places as tombs. During this period death was increasingly though of as a transgression-like the sexual act-which would tear a man from the monotony of his daily life and “plunge him into and irrational, violent and beautiful world” (Ariès, p. 57). During this period death is no longer desirable, but is admirable in its beauty. A sort of complaisance towards death also develops during this period and becomes one of the major characteristics of Romanticism. Mourning becomes, for a brief time ritualized, manifested in certain garments and specific fixed intervals. However restraint with regards to mourning in the nineteenth century is lost. The dramatization of death and excessive spontaneous demonstrations become commonplace during this era.

Individuality of the deceased becomes even more important than it had been during the era of one’s own death. The church is criticized for charnel houses, as family members now want to be able to visit the site where their loved one is buried. Of course this burial place also had to belong exclusively to the deceased and his family. The transition between the era of thy death and the forbidden death era was, unlike the others previously discussed, a dramatic and rapid change. Death having been “so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar” would now disappear (Ariès, p. 85). Death during the forbidden death era is now regarded as a technical failure and has become shameful, and so should be hidden. The reasons for such a rapid transition to forbidden death are two-fold.

Firstly, with advances in modern medicine it is now possible to prolong the life of the dying. Death is moved from the traditional sickbed at home to a bed in a hospital or palliative care center so that it can be hidden. Death then, becomes institutional, and therefore an issue to be handled by doctors. This shift towards dying in the hospital rather than at home occurs because it is no longer convieneient to die at home. Death is regarded as a burden and the notion of an acceptable death has become one that does not trouble the survivors. Secondly, and more importantly, as a result of the tragic loss of millions of lives during the First World War, death could no longer be regarded as beautiful. An entire generation of young men was said to be lost during the Great War, and so death was no longer seen as inspirational but as tragic. Death was no longer familiar, and was actually denied or defied. Death is denied during this era by banning it from common conversation as it is considered taboo. Religion is also used to an extent as a way to defy death. The concept of an eternally blissful afterlife is comforting and faith in a religion is regarded as a saving grace which will protect and preserve one’s soul.

The oldest and most enduring attitude towards death is that of familiarity. During the tamed death era, death was both near and familiar. Attitudes and customs of the tamed death era underwent many subtle modifications which gradually gave a dramatic and personal meaning to a man’s traditional familiarity of death. This emphasis on the individuality of the deceased brought about an era referred to as one’s own death. During this era, man discovers that he is most aware of who he really is at his moment of death. Man eventually begins to exalt and dramatize death, associating it with many Romantic themes. This dramatization was the transition from concern about the death of one’s self to concern about the death of the other. Extreme mourning and excessive spontaneous demonstration become prevalent during this era as well as a strengthened sense of the individuality of the deceased.

While the transitions between Ariès’ first three eras were subtle and very gradual, the transition from thy death to forbidden death was dramatic and rapid. In a world of rapid change, ways of thinking about death kept pace. With quantum advances in medicine, arose the institutionalization of death. This institutionalization of death is manifested in the practice of the dying coming to hospitals to die, rather than in their own beds. A convenient, hidden death is considered a good one. World War One also changed western views regarding the former beauty of death. Death could no longer be called beautiful after having witnessed the loss of millions of young men. As a result, death was banished from everyday conversation, and considered shameful and taboo. While our attitudes toward death may seem to be constant over time, examining the distinctions between each of Ariès’ four eras and the reasons for the transitions between them illustrates the magnitude of change that western attitudes towards death have undergone from tamed death until present era.


Ariès, Philippe. Western Attitudes Towards Death. Translated by Patricia N. Ranum. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

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