Tuesday, 22 December 2009


“The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.” – Seneca

I am reading a book called “Death and the Afterlife” by Brian Innes. It is a large format book with lots of colour illustrations and filled with amazing bits and tidbits – science, superstition, myth and legend, sociological, religious and psychological aspects of the whole topic of death and the afterlife. It is an extremely interesting and very readable book, with some amazing photographs and illustrations that are striking to say the least.

One of the author’s points in this book is that modern society in Western countries tends to “sanitise” death and remove the living from its influence, creating an unhealthy unfamiliarity with it and also a distancing of the “modern, civilised” Westerner from its inevitability. Most people living in the West have never seen a dead body and will take inordinate steps to preserve themselves from any contact with the dead or death. Even the thought of death is banished and our modern medical machinery has become obsessed with preserving life, no matter what.

On the other hand, in traditional Mediterranean culture, in Russia, in the East, in “developing” countries death is an inevitable part of life and people are exposed to it more frequently - and by that I don’t necessarily mean exposed to it in the form of killings in warfare or social violence. The laying out of the corpse in the parlour for the traditional wake still occurs, with relatives and friends being able to say their goodbyes and close that final chapter of the dead person’s book. The rituals surrounding death are mechanisms whereby acceptance of death is gained. The open expression of grief on the part of the bereaved is an important means in coming to terms with the fact of death. And that is healthy…

Michael Gorer has written an interesting book (“The Pornography of Death”) and in it he says: “In the twentieth century there seems to have been an unremarkable shift in prudery; whereas copulation has become more and more mentionable in Anglo-Saxon societies, death has become more and more ‘unmentionable’ as a natural process.” Our whole society is fixated on life and death is shunned. The euphemisms that are resorted to when it needs be mentioned are an indication of the fear that people have developed in what is essentially a perfectly natural and significant event. The whole of the funeral trade is another example of the insulation that has evolved in our societies in order to make death as remote as possible and as clinically removed from the business of the living. Society is youth-, health- and life-oriented. It is hardly surprising that people in the West cannot cope with old age, disease and death…

This is perhaps reflected by the shift in the symbolic image of death. Charon in Ancient Greece was often depicted as youthful and god-like. Charon in his boat is accompanied by Hermes, the psychopomp, who conducted the shade of the departed to the Styx so that Charon could ferry it across. The same youthful, god-like figure of Charon is depicted in ancient prose and poetry. How the image of Charon degenerated into the “Grim Reaper” is perhaps an indication of our view of death in the West. The illustration above by Olexandr Lytovchenko typifies this view of Charon (and death) as the grim, aged, pitiless and fearful reaper of life.

At the same time that we shun real death, virtual death has of course become infinitely appealing, courtesy of Hollywood – the more violent, the better. The entertainment industry is quick to supply vicarious corpses in order to satisfy the curiosity that the general population has regarding death and the “awfully big adventure” as Peter Pan says. The fantasy is provided to the masses who gorge themselves on the spectacle of simulated death in the comfort of their own lounge room…


  1. Why so glum during the holidays, Nicholas? The topic seems a little off season. I hope it doesn't mean you have bad news...
    Have a great Christmas and al the best in the New Year! Here's to many more interesting and enlightening blogs.

  2. Well that was nice and cheery, Nicholas! :D

    On a more serious note, death always has done and always will deeply sadden me.

    Hope you're well, Nicholas...take care and have a great Christmas!

  3. hear hear
    death is all around us and awaits all of us
    unless we make ourselves with it and learn not to fear it our life is pretty miserable

  4. I read this blog a few days ago, and didn't comment, but wanted to really thank you, dear Nicholas, for this blog, so timely and poignant for so many people at this time of year ...

    ... also, all that you say is so true - and so ironic, in a culture that fills our eyes with gruesome and insensitive images as 'entertainment' of the 'CSI' type - yet where any real emotions connected with real deaths seem to set those apart, so alienated - should withdraw? Because such feelings make so many types of 'people' as uncomfortable and coincidentally are as taboo as real sexuality seems to be in our culture, too ... but that's another topic for another day!

    Very seriously - thank you so much for this blog at this time of year, Nick.

  5. Yes, there is a certain parallel between your thoughts on the topic, Francisca's, and my own.

    I think people are perhaps hoping that they die suddenly, here one moment, gone the next. Then not only did they not have to think about their own death as they live, they do not even have to think about their own death as they die.

    Sad really ...