Deaths versus Death

The difference between singular and plural can be incredible. Take the noun ‘death’. Across almost every continent, the pandemic has submerged us in a daily trickle of ‘deaths’ in the plural, hour after hour, news broadcast after online update. We’re presented with ‘deaths’ on a near-daily basis, in the form of incessant videos: mass graves in Manaus, sombre army convoys carrying the dead out of Bergamo, refrigerated trucks abandoned in the streets of New York. But in its singular form death is shrouded in silence, obscured. Nobody thinks of it, let alone speaks of it. The vociferous dealers of fast-thought are extraordinarily reluctant – almost shy – to speak on the subject, all the while churning out momentous deductions and weighty commentaries.  

So far, nobody has seriously reflected on how (or whether) the pandemic has altered our society’s relationship to death. To begin with, few have even interrogated the silence around the issue. We act as if it were impolite to mention it; an Italian proverb warns against ‘speaking of the noose in the hanged man’s home’, suggesting that any reference to misfortune in front of those on whom it befalls is to be avoided, as if death was an awkward topic, unfit for gentlemen (we’ll return to this in a second). There is, however, a less avowable reason for the reticence we speak of, one that can also be described by an Italian term that has no equivalent elsewhere. Commonly translated as ‘superstition’, the word scaramanzia actually denotes something far more specific; the belief that simply mentioning an event might somehow influence it, by either encouraging its appearance (if the event in question is negative: an accident, a bereavement, a failure) or by forestalling it (in the case of success, a love story, passing an exam). A hunter is therefore never wished good luck, for fear they might return empty handed; they’re wished in bocca al lupo (‘in the mouth of the wolf’), the contrary of what is hoped for them. The idea, then, is that by simply mentioning death one might provoke it. This belief is more common than what we might think, and is widespread beyond Italy, even amongst people who should be immune from superstition (studies abound on the credulous practices of cultured, ‘rational’ people).

More profoundly though, this silence around death can be explained through two longue durée processes. The first relates to discourse around and studies of death. The second concerns the attitudes Western societies have toward death itself.

The decades following the end of the Second World War witnessed a flourishing of research and interventions on the subject of death. Historically the exclusive terrain of literature, philosophy and religion, death was annexed by the human sciences: psychology, anthropology, sociology and history. Roughly speaking the most significant contributions on death in the fields of anthropology and sociology came from the Anglosphere, whilst the French produced primarily historical scholarship. From the mid-70s, though, studies began to thin out, or at least they lost their influence and relevance. To be sure, given its centrality, books (films, documentaries) on the matter were still being produced, but nothing quite left a mark on public discourse like the previous generation’s texts had.

‘The Pornography of Death’ is the title of a short article by Geoffrey Gorer published by Encounter in October 1955. In it, Gorer notes how in the preceding fifty years death had gradually become taboo:

For the greater part of the last two hundred years copulation and (at least in the mid-Victorian decades) birth were the ‘unmentionables’ of the triad of basic human experiences… around which so much private fantasy and semi-clandestine pornography were erected. During most of this period death was no mystery, except in the sense that death is always a mystery. Children were encouraged to think about death, their own deaths and the edifying or cautionary deathbeds of others. It can have been a rare individual who, in the 19th century with its high mortality, had not witnessed at least one actual dying, as well as paying their respect to ‘beautiful corpses’; funerals were the occasion of the greatest display for working class, middle class, and aristocrat. The cemetery was the centre of every old-established village, and they were prominent in most towns. It was fairly late in the 19th century when the execution of criminals ceased to be a public holiday as well as a public warning… In the 20th century, however, there seems to have been an unremarked shift in prudery; whereas copulation has become more and more ‘mentionable’, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon societies, death has become more and more ‘unmentionable’ as a natural process.

This inversion of sexuality and death – the latter replacing the former as object of the unsayable – merits deeper reflection (Gorer developed his thesis in a more detailed study, which appeared in 1965: Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain). Indeed, the popularity of TV series such as CSI could perhaps be attributed to their pornographic element. Their protagonist is, after all, the autopsy table – that theatre of ‘indecencies’ which blurs the line between forensic pathology and soft-porn. It might be that the repression of the scandal around death contributed to the emergence of what Jessica Mitford termed The American Way of Death (1963); the practice of beautifying corpses and the spread of embalmment as a temporary method of conservation of the corpse, contrary to that of the ancient Egyptians, where the appearance of life in the deceased is made to last for thousands of years. The American funerary industry currently has a turnover of around $20 billion, corresponding to 2.4 million funerals a year. Tony Richardson’s film on the Los Angeles funeral business, The Loved One (1965), is worth remembering here; based on a short novel by Evelyn Waugh, the production also employed Mitford as a consultant. Back then, I thought the film was rather good; who knows what effect it would have today.

Our repression of death, then, is not a novel attitude (especially today, as we’re overwhelmed with the constant news of so many undeserved deaths), but rather the result of a trend rooted in the industrial structure of our society. Here French scholarship comes into play, in particular the work of Philippe Ariès, most notably his collected lectures, Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (1974). Ariès identified various stages in the development of death – from a social death, to a familial death, to a hospitalized death. If somebody was dying at home during the Middle Ages, even casual passers-by would actively participate in bidding them farewell, entering the house to greet them, perhaps sticking around for a groan or two. Death was a communal experience. The family subsequently became death’s main character (here we also see emerge all the rituals of 19th century ‘romantic’ mourning). Then, in a third phase, after being subtracted from society, death was also taken from the family and handed over to hospitals, to which it was ultimately delegated. When one arrives in a new city, one can immediately tell if a hospital is nearby from the number of funeral homes you see in the street. As Ariès summarizes:

The Middle Ages in their entirety – even at their close – lived with a familiarity of death and of the dead. From the 16th to the 18th century erotic images of death attest to the rupturing of the millenarian intimacy between man and death. As La Rochefoucauld notes, men can neither look the sun nor death in the face any longer. From the 19th century, images of death appear increasingly rarely, and disappear altogether in the 20th. The silence that nowadays reigns over death means it has broken out of its chains, transforming itself into a wild and incomprehensible force.

The repression of death is thus a process rooted in industrialization and technological progress. Even the rise of cremation can be understood in terms of this social repression, for the buried corpse acts as a permanent reminder of the departed (no matter how deeply they might be buried under the conscience of the living), whereas cremated ashes ratify a disappearance, sanctioning a more definitive type of rupture. It’s been shown that cinerary urns are visited far less than graves; the former signals the decline of the cemetery as a sacred site and the end of ‘romantic’ mourning, with its characteristic monumental graves and solemn funeral processions that marked the life not just of towns, but also of cities.

From this perspective the pandemic has hardly altered our relationship with death. It has merely intensified already present dynamics – above all the increasing solitude in dying. Once more, the peremptory assertion that ‘nothing will ever be the same’ rings hollow. In no way has the pandemic altered modernity’s tenacious attempts to cancel death, to make it vanish from our horizon of life, to bequeath it to an incomprehensible and unimaginable ‘elsewhere’ or ‘otherwhen’:[1] a form of absolute panic, to put it brutally.

It will be objected that one of the past year’s more frequent complaints has been that the pandemic has deprived us of the ability to grieve. Here too we might do well to consult Ariès, who has shown grief to be a category far from immutable, but rather a precise historical construct whose culmination came in the 19th century. In reality, mourning in its various manifestations – beginning with the recurrent ritual of the visit to the cemetery and the spread of funerary monuments – only took shape with the advent of romanticism, when mourning for the dead supplanted the cult of the dead. The previous two centuries have thus seen human society do without that cult of the dead which had characterized it since its origins.

Only in the 1800s did the middle classes begin to express bereavement through the colour of women’s garments, which were black during the funeral and often kept so for subsequent months. As W. M. Spellman recounts in his A Brief History of Death (2014): ‘A period of withdrawal from social life was also expected, again with women taking the lead role. In America many middle-class girls received mourning kits for their dolls, the ritual acted out in the world of play’. In short, before the end of the 1800s, Freud would never have been able to argue that mourning was one of man’s innate psychological processes.

But it would still be inaccurate to say that the pandemic has simply magnified tendencies that have been developing for a century – its effects resemble more a return to a proximate past. For the effects of modernity described by Gorer, Mitford and Airès have lost their prominence in the past decades: deaths in hospital reached a peak, but recently families have preferred to keep their dying loved ones at home.

We know that around 80% of Americans would prefer to die in their homes, but also that 60% die in hospital, 20% in nursing homes and only 20% at home. This percentage, however, is rising, as deaths in hospitals and emergency departments fall, whilst admissions increase. This trend is explained by our growing consciousness of the futility of therapeutic persistence in terminal patients.

The evolution of grief is also less linear than it might appear. The most caricatural, archaic figure associated with it is that of the contracted mourner, the professional weeper. Hiring people to cry demonstrates the theatrical (and therefore deceptive) nature of sorrow. An article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times from 22 March 1908 is rather disorientating. ‘Professional Mourners Strike’, the title announces, and the opening paragraph reads, ‘PARIS, March 14. Those curious, gruesome individuals, made notorious through French romances, known as “croque morts”, or professional weepers, have gone on a strike, as they only get 5 f. for twelve hours’ service, and an additional franc when sent out on an extra call’. What we have here is an ultra-archaic profession combining with a tool of modern class struggle, the strike.

Professional mourners have even entered the world of the internet, participating in the latest technological revolution:

Worried that not enough people will show up to your funeral? Let Rent-A-Mourner help. The ingenious and aptly-named company allows concerned parties to pay for professional grievers to fill a funeral home and make sure that the deceased gets a fitting and extremely well-attended sendoff. For approximately $68 a head, the UK-based business will send ‘professional, polite, well dressed individuals’ to attend your funeral or wake, and will weep, wail and generally appear sad about the passing of whatever person happens to be filling the casket for about two hours. Rent-A-Mourner promises that your paid grievers will be ‘discreet’ and ‘professional’, according to its website.

Unfortunately, at a time of undoubtedly high demand, the service is no longer available – ceased trading in March 2019.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘The Philosopher’s Epidemic’, NLR 122.

[1] I borrow the term ‘otherwhen’ from H. Beam Piper’s famous 1965 science-fiction novel, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen.