Death and Dying

Sarah Covington

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Death and Dying

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Beliefs and practices relating to death underwent profound transformations in the early modern period and continue to provoke the interest of widely disparate scholars. Once the purview of demographic, medical, and social historians, the subject of death and dying has also been given literary and art historical treatments as well as treatment from a range of other interdisciplinary and theoretical perspectives. As Philippe Ariès once noted, if the historian (and one might add the student) “wishes to arrive at an understanding” of what death meant in the past, he or she must “widen his field of vision” to encompass different historical approaches and methodologies—and even then the subject still eludes. (Ariès 1981, p. 16–17; cited under Attitudes and Mentalities). No study of death’s history can escape the shadow of Ariès, even if his two works relating to the theme of death have been criticized for the selectivity of their sources and sweeping conclusions about collective beliefs. But as with many such ambitious and problematic works—Michel Foucault and Norbert Elias are others whose field-changing books come to mind—the influence has been enormous. Working from the perspective of social history and the Annales school of French historians, Ariès tended to focus primarily on the cultural and attitudinal aspects of death, with most of the books in this article reflecting this approach. But the biomedical and demographic aspects are also important, particularly in the context of an age that witnessed a revolution in professionalized medicine and, according to many scholars, resulted in the medicalization and eventually the “secularization” of death. Historians have also been influenced by the contributions of anthropologists, such as Jack Goody on ritual, Victor Turner on liminality, and Arnold Van Gennep on rites de passage (rituals marking the life cycle), all of whom have deepened understandings of the very different approaches to death that people held in the premodern past. Many practitioners of “historical anthropology” thus explored cultural practices and collectively held symbolic systems, each of which carried extensive implications for the study of funerary rites, burial customs, or rituals of remembrance. Indeed, the anthropologist Robert Hertz made such endeavors possible in his own work on funerary rituals and the psychological connections between the living and the dead or between the individual and the community. Such perspectives were also animated by a related turn in the study of memory, with such notable exponents as Pierre Nora and his “sites of memory”; as a result the use of tradition and commemorative ritual as well as an interest in epigraphs and tomb monuments has been applied to the memorializing of the dead with productive results. Most of the sections in this article select works that reflect these different theoretical approaches as they describe how death in the early modern world was an intimate fact of life and one that was confronted communally and with a common, consolatory language and set of rituals, all of which was a healthier way, perhaps, to face death than the medicalized isolation that often surrounds it in the early 21st century.

Article.  15953 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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