Societal changes to the way we perceive death

Anthea Gellie and her co-authors form an eclectic team of researchers from diverse backgrounds including Medicine, Psychology, Science, and Humanities. Their paper Death: A Foe to be conquered? Questioning the paradigm reflects on changing attitudes to death and the need for a change to the current paradigm. Anthea tweets at @AntheaGellie

Whittington on his death bed - Thomas Brewer. Courtesy of the Mercers’ Company.  Photograph by Louis Sinclair.

Whittington on his death bed – Thomas Brewer. Courtesy of the Mercers’ Company. Photograph by Louis Sinclair.

There are few certainties in life—death is one of them. It is worth reminding ourselves of this age old maxim in a time when medical knowledge and technology have extended the possibilities of medical care; and when most people survive to advanced age and die in hospital, not at home. Our views on death have become skewed.

We sit at an unparalleled juncture in history, in which most of us can expect to live to old age. Compare this to medieval Britain, where life expectancy was just 30 years. It is not uncommon now, however, to survive to middle age before personally experiencing the death of a loved one. Advances in modern medicine allow us to live well with chronic illness, but we also run the risk that the lives of frail older people are prolonged to the point where life becomes a burden. Dying people often fear ‘lingering on’ unnecessarily, and have priorities such as retaining a sense of control and not being a burden on their loved ones. Yet in the medical setting, we can often overlook the wishes of a patient to have a peaceful death.

Added to this, it is very rare to find realistic public depictions of the most common death in our society today – that of the frail, older patient with slowly deteriorating health, in a hospital bed. Death in the media is dramatized death, designed to entertain or provoke. These distorted death-representations only lead us to trivialize the subject, warping our perceptions of death, and at the same time leaving us just as unprepared for the real thing.

However traditional notions of death may have something to teach us. Death in medieval times (and beyond) was a familiar, public event where family, friends and neighbours gathered around the bed of the dying person to pay their respects. It was an accepted part of life as much as the turning of the seasons, birth and marriage, and it was something people prepared for so that they could complete their lives meaningfully, having made their peace with God, family and loved ones. Let’s make the ‘common’ death of our times our focus, with an aim to making it a more peaceful, dignified and meaningful experience.

The full paper can be read on the Age and Ageing website, here.

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