The emergence of death and dying as we know it


USA – Once upon a time, people died in their homes. Up until the time of death they were cared for by friends, family members, and appointed religious leaders. The latter reminded the dying and their loved ones of the frailty of life in preparation for the impending separation.

And following death, the deceased remained in the company of these people while they went about their daily lives until interment could be arranged. As the time of burial approached, the last rites of remembrance also occurred within the home. Loved ones kept vigils where they talked about the deceased and ate and drank in celebration of the life that had passed. They confirmed his place in the community and closed the void left by his absence. They sometimes covered the mirrors in the home to prevent the spirit of the deceased from becoming trapped in the home and opened windows to help it find its way onward. Sometimes they took family portraits. Death was a personal and personalized affair.

Death is managed differently today. People generally die in hospitals or hospices or nursing homes where they are removed from the daily lives they knew and the lives of the people who are closest to them.

While people may certainly mourn or hold memorials in their homes, more often than not, people go to where the body is to pay their final respects which means mourning occurs in the designated spaces of funeral homes. There are professionals who oversee the rituals associated with saying goodbye. There are professionals who are charged with the care and maintenance of the deceased’s body until the rites are over. Death is a thriving industry; it has been institutionalized.

This shift from a personal to a privatized experience of death began in Victorian England. In crowded Victorian homes, it wasn’t uncommon for the decomposing body to be kept in its coffin within the home where family and friends could view and touch the body. This physical interaction with the deceased was important in this time when medical certification of death didn’t exist: how else could you be certain that the deceased was actually, well, deceased? Naturally this practice became a source of concern with the rising threat of contagious epidemics.

During the Second Cholera Pandemic of the 1830s and 1840s, English law mandated that bodies of the deceased be removed from the home immediately. Victorians resisted because it contradicted with traditional practices of keeping the body in the home but it’s likely that this resistance was also partly fueled by finances, particularly among the poorer members of society. Delaying burial allowed family members to raise the necessary funds for the coffin, the transport of the body, and a space within the churchyard. Demanding immediate burial put families in a position where they were unable finance these elements, which meant a pauper’s grave for the deceased.

There are two interrelated elements of funerals. The first is the ritual: the way(s) the body is treated as the individual is transitioned from a living member of the community to a deceased member. The second is how the body is disposed, which often directly tied to the social standing of the individual and the types of grave goods that can be interred with the deceased. Together they help paint a picture of the deceased and the community he belonged to. The idea of laying a loved one to rest in an unmarked grave away from sanctified ground—a pauper’s grave—was horrifying. It stripped the deceased of any rights he might claim among the living. The anonymity of the burial site reduced the community’s ability to mourn—to recognize the individual as a member of society—and because these graveyards were often far from urban center, a pauper’s grave limited the opportunity to visit the site and remember and honor the deceased. For a group with already limited agency, this consignment stripped the poor of any personal identity and was a daunting proposal for eternity.

To avoid this fate, millions of people joined “unions” that provided death and sickness benefits. These groups would visit door-to-door on Saturdays after wages had been paid to collect for the benefits. The need to pay for these services opened the door for the sale of others, and in this way, the undertaker became a salesman. What were the basics? The records of the City of London Poor Union reveal that the poor would at minimum purchase a plain pine coffin and four bearers. The rented a rough pall to cover the casket. And if there were any extra funds to be secured, they purchased a coffin plate with the deceased’s name engraved. For the wealthy, there were plenty of add-ons. The funeral could be a grand affair with sufficient decoration, pomp, and mourners for a respectable parade to the burial grounds.

This standard approach to death also standardized mourning. There were respectable periods of observance depending on the relationship of the living to the deceased, and the duration of the mourning period grew shorter the more removed the survivor was from the deceased. For example, one might mourn a parent for 12 months, but a first cousin a month. And of course, there was a cost attached to the requirements of mourning: the cost of black clothing for a year could be a considerable weight for a poorer family to bear.

By the end of the 19th-century, the business of death had been firmly established and with it the idea of what was considered “respectable.” A proper send off required elements that needed to be purchased, and was not something that could be coordinated in your home. A subsequent effect of this was that by removing the body from the home, celebrations of the individual lost some of their personal nature. Things like candles, music, offerings—even flowers—have meaning. Covering mirrors and opening doors has a meaning. Washing your hands after returning from a wake has a meaning. They express things about the mourners and the deceased that don’t need to be said aloud. These items change in the context of a funeral home where they are weighed and purchased on a scale of affordability.

But there may be a shift coming as people increasingly try to make decisions about their end-of-life care. While this may not mean a return to caring and managing the deceased in the home for health reasons, it may mean that mourning may become less institutionalized with time.


Photo: KDCosta, 2011. Sleepy Hollow, NY

Author: Krystal D’Costa, curated from Scientific American