Bumper Book of Death

Frank Kermode

This book is a history of the collective consciousness of the ‘Latin West’ (with this country and New England included by association or out of courtesy) during the last thousand years; its focus is death, or changing attitudes towards death, but it is part of the argument that such attitudes must be related to our feelings about many other matters.

Ariès is a researcher of genius, and I shall be saying later that his gifts are sometimes the cause of certain faults or excesses. As in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, of which this work is a modern avatar, there is an armature of theory which is almost lost under the vast quantity of illustrative material. Much of this is unfamiliar, for Ariès has looked in unusual places – wills, journals, epitaphs and the like – in an attempt to avoid the more formal literary and iconographical kinds of evidence, though he uses that evidence whenever he needs to. What he wants to do is to get behind the standard theological, liturgical and rhetorical formulas, and touch some common imaginative deep structure from which we generate our changing attitudes to death.

The thesis maintains that there have been, in the millennium under consideration, five distinct historical phases. The first, and longest, was the phase of what he calls the Tame Death: at this time death was not feared but thought of merely as repose. The manner of suffering it, its effect on survivors, their ways of representing it, of disposing of the corpse and remembering the departed, all reflected this calm acceptance. The Tame Death was as devoid of terror as it was of medical attendance; when possible, it was public and ceremonious. The worst fate that could befall one was sudden and unexpected death: it is a measure of the changes that have occurred between the early and the late years of the period that nowadays it is on the whole thought a benefit to die without knowing it – for example, in sleep.

The second phase is that of the Death of the Self. The individual begins to conceive of his death as personal, and as preceding an intimate accounting with God. Elaborate wills, giving among other things detailed instructions for the disposal of the body, for masses, tombs and epitaphs, accompanied a new anxiety about Judgment and the afterlife generally. Anonymous burial, the normal lot of all but the rich and powerful, gave way to the desire of more ordinary persons to have some memorial. Death was well on the way to becoming ‘untamed’, and in the third phase the melancholy appropriate to the death of the self gave way to the more fantastic responses of the Baroque; death even grew erotic. There followed, in the Romantic period, the age of the Beautiful Death. The loved one might now be identified with nature, and a cult of the dead, indeed of death itself, might co-exist, as in Wuthering Heights, with exotic Gothic terrors. Last comes our own Invisible Death.

Such, in brief, is the historical scheme. Ariès admits that it can’t really accommodate all the facts he has collected, or all the ideas they have given him, and he urges us to look out for the obiter dicta, the less schematic speculations, that he comes up with in the course of the work. These are undoubtedly interesting, and make the work even more like Burton’s: but most readers, I think, will come away, not with a handful of ideas, but with a mass of strange, often gruesome information.

For instance, there is the changing history of graveyards. At the beginning of Ariès’s thousand years it was the custom to bury bodies inside, or just outside, the church, so that they might have the protection of the saints. There were ecclesiastical and practical objections to this practice, but they were overborne. Later it was probably the fashion for personal monuments that led to intolerable overcrowding in urban graveyards, which had formerly been rather temporary places of deposit, the bones being removed later to an ossuary. In the 19th century people began to complain that the urban cemeteries were unhygienic. The great Paris graveyard, Les Innocents, was closed, and corpses were dispatched to the environs by the trainload. Ariès asks why the city sites, fundamentally unchanged for centuries and presumably always rather grisly, came so suddenly to seem intolerable. Had there been a change in the sense of what a city ought to be? Or was this a new form of an old fear, a new mechanism of rejection? We can never answer such questions satisfactorily, because the evidence provided is so extensive and complicated. It won’t support a simple thesis. At times it has appeared that the living are anxious to keep themselves well apart from the dead, and the revulsion against vast urban burial grounds might well be an instance of this: yet at much the same time the desire to commune with one’s dead seems to have grown stronger, and Ariès cites some instances to show that in roughly the same period there was a revival of interest in mummification. One late 18th-century gentleman had his wife made into a mummy, and kept her in the house after he remarried – a state of affairs imaginable, in our time, only by Thurber. Somebody else wanted to patent a method of vitrifying corpses and making of them glass beads to be worn by the bereaved.

We read here of medieval emperors who, at death, were instantly boiled to remove the flesh, which occupied one tomb; bowels, heart and, noblest of all, bones were each consigned to separate tombs. We see a photograph of the great ossuary at Palermo, stuffed with the bones and skulls of monks. We read of a hundred different ways of thinking about dead bodies and getting rid of them. Customs that must have seemed natural and universal turn out to be merely cultural and local. All that is certain is that the body has to be disposed of somehow; whether it is to be tended or even remembered, let alone prayed for, whether it is to be loved or feared, depicted as beautiful or disgusting, seems to be optional. We continue to make such choices. Here in Britain we prefer to burn the dead, in the United States the preferred procedures are at once more profitable and less briskly like garbage disposal.

Among thousands of almost equally startling bits of information, Ariès offers us the news that in Britain today widowers are ostracised, and that in the first year after the death of the wife their mortality rate is ten times that of men of the same age not so bereaved. I mention this fact because I do not quite know what to do with it, and there are a great many more of the same kind. One sees why Ariès needed his big scheme to accommodate them. He also needs, and has, strong views as to what are good and bad ways of thinking about death. Both the scheme and the parti pris tend to distort the evidence.

The argument is for deep historical change. Of course such change does occur, but Ariès wants its course to be chartable in terms of abrupt turning-points, violent contrasts. He is always anxious to dispute received opinion. A notable instance of this anxiety is his pronouncement that human beings never knew the fear of death until the 17th century. ‘Of course they were afraid to die; they felt sad about it and said so quite calmly.’ This formula distinguishes the fear of dying from the fear of death, which is probably fair: but it also switches from being afraid to feeling sad, which probably isn’t. But Ariès badly wants to establish that there was a major change in feeling at a particular historical moment.

Behind this need there is a very strong feeling that in the centuries since we gave up the tame death we have gone terribly wrong on the subject. Death is regarded as a scandal. ‘It should have disappeared along with disease, but it persists; it is not even any longer in retreat.’ Ariès believes that we need to humanise, or rehumanise, death, to change its image. At present that image strikes him as more cruel than ever before: a man or woman in a hospital bed, stuck all over with tubes, lacking the nobility of even the most grotesque St Sebastian.

Yet it is hard to believe that death has only recently become a scandal. Even in the centuries when it was tame, when it was accepted without fuss, when the passing was orderly and the mourning quick and simple – there must have been something scandalous about it. Rachel mourned her children and would not be consoled: it seems improbable that she had no successors before the present century. Where there is an imagination of happiness, death is a scandal. That is one implication of the Genesis myth, and it was of particular interest to Milton, admittedly a post-tame-death poet. His poem is always astonished by the brutality and finality of death’s intrusions into bliss; even before it has ever happened to anybody it is thought of as a dreadful penalty:

                                                              the pain
Of death denounced, whatever thing death be.

The most appalling indication of the enormity of the loss suffered by Adam and Eve is Eve’s proposal to meet death half-way by suicide:

Why stand we longer shivering under fears
That show no end but death, and have the power
Of many ways to die the shortest choosing,
Destruction with destruction to destroy?

Since their deaths would presumably have prevented all the deaths that have happened since, Eve’s seems a reasonable argument, but of course it is also wicked, and Adam knows better than to annoy his Judge, the inventor of death, with such ‘acts of contumacy’.

A scandal is, literally, a stumbling block or trap; when there is no way round it, the only thing to do is to accommodate and explain it. That is why the human imagination has a plasticity in regard to death no less admirable than what it displays in its dealings with sex. The arts of dying, like the arts of disposing of the dead, remembering them, assisting them, are therefore extraordinarily various, and fashions change in time: but whether they change with the decisiveness postulated in this book is very doubtful. When you listen to the arguments in Measure for Measure, you may be impressed by the Duke’s grand formulation of the Contemptus mundi: there are ways of dealing with the fear of death, and the Duke specifies some of them, but Claudio is closer to the real thing and speaks like a man with a dread of it in his guts. Measure for Measure admittedly scrapes into the 17th century, but it is hard to believe that nobody ever felt like Claudio before that date.

Ariès, however, might value the play as a document of transition. He alludes to Hamlet only in passing, though it is also full of interest for his argument. The reader of this book will abandon any notion that the graveyard scene is merely an instance of the literary macabre: the burial grounds of the period would have been littered with bones and skulls, and the gravedigger would have known who had lain where, and even what were the corpse’s prospects of slow or rapid decomposition. Hamlet’s reaction to the skull of Yorick is especially apposite. Ariès notes a change from the memento mori, the generalised injunction to remember that you must die, to the memento illius, the reminder of a particular person. Hamlet treats the jester’s skull as both of these. You could also say that rapid remarriage – using the funeral baked meats cold at the wedding reception – was good medieval thanatology, acceptable to Gertrude, but not to Hamlet – another mark of transition. Anyway, that is the sort of thing Ariès is always looking for.

He wants to discover ‘a hidden language’ – a deep structure which has sharply different period manifestations.‘The desires and fantasies that had risen from the depths of the human psyche were expressed in a system of symbols provided by the Christian lexicons. But each age spontaneously chose certain symbols in preference to others, because they better expressed the underlying tendencies of collective behaviour.’ In favour of this view it can be said that whole tracts of the language of death might remain unused for centuries. For example, St Matthew’s pronouncements on judgment, Heaven and Hell, though perfectly familiar to the literate, seem to have had little influence on attitudes to death until the late Middle Ages. The Last Judgment was not until then a matter of much concern; even at Chartres it is not represented as terrible. Its depiction on baptismal fonts suggests merely that to have been baptised ensures one a place among the sheep rather than the goats: the matter was already settled. But soon it grew in importance, and flourished in the popular imagination and in painting. Another instance is Purgatory, familiar to the theologians and Dante, but having no popular imaginative acceptance until the 16th century; prayers for the souls in Purgatory, like the Mass for the Dead, are a relatively late innovation. The notion that one needs the help of intercessors at the time of judgment also appears quite late, and the Ave Maria, which requests such intercession at the hour of our death, came in in the 16th century.

This is all persuasive. Yet even at the time when the moment of death assumed such critical importance, there were voices strongly insisting that the final account would take notice of a whole life, and not just its end. The simultaneous existence of conflicting opinions is something of a nuisance to Ariès. It might suggest that although there are recognisable differences in prevailing attitudes to death at various periods, most of the possible responses can co-exist, so that the irruption of apparently new or neglected forms of expression need not be read as marking an epoch in the subject. But that is too simple, too dull, for Ariès: anything that seems obvious, or is widely believed, must be challenged. Is there a relationship between the high mortality rate of the plagues and the development of the macabre in funerary art? No, for that might imply the too early onset of the fear of death. So macabre ‘images of death and decomposition do not signify fear of death ... They are the sign of a passionate love for this world and a painful awareness of the failure to which each human life is condemned.’ Max Weber remarked that only capitalist man wants to go rich to his grave. ‘In fact the truth is exactly the opposite’: it is pre-capitalist man who wants to ‘go to his grave loaded with gold and riches and to hold on to his fortune in aeternum.’ He accepted the idea of dying but could not bring himself to ‘leave houses and orchards and gardens’. Yet another common error is the belief that the family is now on the wane: in fact, it dominates our society as never before.

There is probably something in all these paradoxical contentions, but they are too unqualified to convince. Researchers of genius love to find intricate and occult patterns in their material, and they love to show that everybody else has been not slightly but entirely wrong.

Characteristically, he has little praise for his rival inquirers into the depths, the psychoanalysts. Freud and Abraham were, he thinks, right to deplore the modern refusal to mourn, but wrong in their analysis of it. They assumed that complex dealings with the love and hate felt by the survivor for the deceased were universal, that the death of the other always induces the same sort of psychic situation. But Ariès has been labouring to show the great diversity of the human response to death, and to prove that it is subject to periodisation: so he concludes that the analysts were unwittingly dependent upon a local and cultural model of mourning, which they mistook for a universal condition: their ideal mourner is a 19th-century invention based on the 18th-century invention of the Beautiful Death. Before that there was grief, but not guilt, no persistent prostration.

I suppose the analysts would dismiss these arguments as mere symptoms of denial, saying, for example, that mourning recapitulates inescapable infantile losses and conflicts common to all mankind; death is always construed as an act of violence, however the culture works to conceal and deny the fact. For them, Ariès’s denial of denial is simply another form of the same denial. He himself shows how various are the forms denial can take – for example, in his study of the practice of concealing or revealing the face of the dead, of changing fashions in tomb sculpture. But these are cultural, not psychic changes. The analysts have a deeper deep structure. Ariès rejoices in diversity; analysts, despite all the variations of doctrine, are what used to be called uniformitarian.

His love of change can be seen in the emphasis he places upon the fear of premature burial, as the starting-point, virtually, of modern attitudes to death. For centuries, nobody seemed to bother about it, but then an epidemic fear developed. Finally it disappeared again, so that although it instituted a major change it was in itself no more than a period fashion. This seems very doubtful. I myself have known a man with a pathological terror of being buried alive: he extracted all manner of undertakings from his friends, who were to carry out a series of tests and instal alarms in the coffin. I daresay the consulting rooms are still haunted by such unfortunates, and Ariès himself cites instances from earlier periods. The fear of premature burial – and the fear of the prematurely buried – may be closer to universal than he allows. Epidemic manifestations may have temporary and local explanations, but that the dead and living states should be clearly distinguished, that any intermediate state is felt to be intolerable to all concerned, may be matter for the analyst rather than the historian.

Ariès’s attitude to psychoanalysts is nothing like so hostile as his attitude to doctors. He looks back with admiration at times when death occurred without medical attendance, at home; the dying knew they were dying, and how to behave, and the neighbours dropped in to say goodbye. Nowadays the doctor is in charge, prolonging our lives into the worst terminal indignities, then dismissing our bodies as evidence of no further relevance, or of medical failure. A strong dislike of modern modes of dying may be one of the forces that animate this very excited and eloquent book.

Indeed, I have given a rather poor impression of its scope, variety and interest. It is likely to be read less as an example of a fashionable way of doing history than as a sort of bumper book of death. It is very large, but then so is its subject, and part of the pleasure for everybody will be that, large as it is, it doesn’t include everything. The main pleasure, of course, is that it protects us from its subject by making it a subject, a mere matter of cultural history.