Last Friday, as I emerged from the Harvard T-stop at ground level to join the throngs of tourists and students hurrying through the square, the Christ Church cemetery across the street caught my eye. I had passed the small plot dotted with weathered headstones and blanketed in a thin coating of snow countless times before without giving it much thought. Its rusted gates were wide open and a few other wanderers, perhaps also sidetracked from their errands, hunched over graves dating back to the 18th century and peered at their inscriptions. Chiseled into the first headstone I came upon was the year 1743 and a hollow eyed skull baring two rows of exposed teeth. The morbid image struck me as a peculiar way to honor the dead. In the local cemetery of my suburban hometown in Minnesota, built in the 1920s or ‘30s, you can find solemn angels, modest stone crosses, and very little skeleton imagery.
While the transformation of the imagery we use to commemorate the dead might seem insignificant on the surface, the shift from grim skeletons to innocuous cherubs reflects the way our society has grown increasingly uncomfortable with acknowledging death. From the widespread practice of home burials in the 1800s to rise of the funeral home industry in the early 20th century to the current trend towards digitizing the funeral, rituals surrounding death are always changing. Their most recent evolution suggests that we have reached new heights of discomfort with death and are now even more eager to separate ourselves from it.
Over the past few decades, the way we treat death and dying has revolutionized. Cremation rates have doubled nationwide in the past 15 years. Trends like on-demand “mobile mortuaries,” which offer embalming services that arrive at your doorstep, and even drive-through funerals are gaining popularity. Funeral parlors advertise live-streaming services that allow friends and family of the deceased to watch the funeral service from the comfort of their own homes. A host of social media sites designed to commemorate the dead invite mourning families to create blogs and profiles for their lost loved ones. One such site, memoriesforeternity.com, allows visitors to light a virtual candle that will “burn for eternity” in remembrance of the dearly departed.
These innovations are certainly positive in the sense that they provide grieving families with added flexibility, but they also allow individuals to distance themselves from immediately confronting mortality. On one hand, the overarching trend towards the personalization of funerals could be seen as proof that cultural attitudes towards death are boldly stepping into the information age and embracing the budding customization economy. But what happens when you can close out of the browser window containing the eternal flame with the click of a button, or when funeral homes open kiosks in shopping malls so customers don’t face the emotional burden of setting foot inside a business clearly associated with dying? If the 20th century replaced skulls on gravestones with angels and moved burial preparation from the living room to the funeral parlor, the 21st century is replacing tombstones with ashes and moving the funeral online. While a variety of economic factors are at least partially responsible for these shifts, they also speak to our increasing desire to obscure the morbidity of death from sight.
Americans have developed an increasingly paradoxical relationship with death. The average lifespan has skyrocketed from 47 to 79 over the past century, and medical advances have safeguarded us from various life-threatening diseases. Even so, we continue to search for new methods of obscuring death from view—detaching ourselves even further from certain aspects of death and dying. Even as innovations in medicine and technology have prolonged life and dramatically extended old age, our phobia of discussing and dealing with death has driven us to find new means by which to mask it and cordon it off from everyday life. If the funeral home comes to you, you don’t have to visit a business tied up with morbid associations. If the funeral can be live streamed, you don’t need to pass in front of an open coffin. While reminders of our mortality that were once commonplace, such as uncontrollable pathogenic disease, have become less prominent, our discomfort at frankly acknowledging our own mortality has in fact grown.
The overburdened state of assisted living facilities speaks to this trend. As recently as twenty years ago, it was common practice for assisted living facilities to take on the elderly who could no longer live safely at home but were not ill enough for nursing homes. However, due to the increasing stigmatization of nursing homes as final stops before death, more and more seniors and their families refuse to leave the assisted living system. Even when their medical problems outmatched the capacities of the facilities and staff, they insisted on staying, and the cash-strapped facilities were eager to have them stay. While two decades ago, nearly all residents in assisted living facilities were capable of leading their lives without intensive medical care, a recent study shows that now, in four states, more than half of assisted living residents require devices to support mobility. This cycle, ultimately driven by a society-wide desire to sweep mortality under the rug, has pushed many experts in the field of end-of-life care to call for stricter regulation regarding who is allowed to remain in the system.
This development—by which fear and discomfort with death have increased while many threats to life have decreased—might appear contradictory upon first glance. Perhaps as medical and technological breakthroughs have provided us with the means of exercising an increasing degree of control over when our lives come to an end, our desire to gain control over mortality itself has increased as well. As our reality has changed and we have watched lifespans grow, our expectations have grown as well. However, mortality confronts us within an absolute limit we may never pass. In an age in which technology facilitates quick access to information, enables easy communication with others, and provides us with new and plentiful means of controlling our lives, it makes sense that a growing number of people would feel discomfort with the grim reality that death ultimately defies all our attempts at control. In this way, the paradox appears to come full circle. Has our ability to exert increasing amounts of control over life in fact rendered us increasingly unable to confront death? And have our attempts to mask mortality and distance ourselves from it made death into something more frightening than it necessarily has to be?
These are elusive questions that are difficult to answer without the benefit of retrospect. However, even if it isn’t the primary cause behind our increasing discomfort with mortality, a societal tendency to euphemize and mask death, especially when it occurs violently, has other destructive consequences. After a Cleveland police officer fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice for carrying a BB gun on November 24, USA Today’s coverage of the incident referred to the shooting as part of a “continued nationwide focus on police incidents.” By referring to murder as an incident, the mainstream media avoids acknowledging death and masks it through euphemism, downplaying the significance of racist police violence. If these “incidents” were in fact labeled correctly—as murders—it would likely become much harder for the public to deny the systematic, racist violence. Likewise, the US military imposed a ban during the First Gulf War, prohibiting the publication of photos of soldiers’ coffins returning from overseas in a similar attempt to obscure death. According to its critics, the ban, which was not lifted until 2009, sanitized the public image of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and served to maintain support for the wars even as increasing numbers of soldiers lost their lives. Even though it runs against our instincts, reckoning with death instead of masking it may allow us to challenge the ways in which it often occurs violently and unnecessarily.
As the way we live continues to evolve, it’s natural that our outlooks on death should transform as well. This is not to suggest, however, that we should blindly accept prevailing attitudes towards death as the best option. If Cicero was correct in stating that to philosophize is to learn how to die, it is because our attitudes towards death significantly shape the way we carry out our lives. If masking death only serves to make it more terrifying and perpetuate injustices, perhaps what is required is an open attitude that death is an integral component of life. In Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, he writes with regard to death, “Let us learn bravely to stand our ground, and fight him. And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.” Ironically, through acknowledging death directly, we might be able to overcome our mortal fears.