In medieval times death was perceived as a greater presence. Life expectancy was less than half of what it is today, and the infant mortality rate was extremely high. People had to live with a greater awareness of death as it would touch everyone more frequently. Life was described as “Nasty brutish and short”, and the end was often violent, cruel and physically painful.
The middle-ages mitigated the belief in an afterlife and absolution provided a scapegoat for the strong emotions evoked by death.
By the end of the nineteenth century fewer women died in childbirth and illness became less painful. Life became longer and death seemed more under control. The major price was that death was denied or forgotten about; both at a social and at an individual level. As a result, it is no longer common to see or to touch our dead. We don’t talk about it or we even use euphemisms to explain it – “He has passed away”. “He is pushing up the daisies”. We distance ourselves from the dying and even the old and infirm. Is this because of anger, guilt, or fear of the unknown?
There are now signs that this trend, which has prevailed since the Victorian era, is beginning to reverse. Writers such as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Colin Murray Parkes, Beverley Raphael and John Bowlby have contributed a great deal, and the Hospice Movement has played an important part by introducing openness and acceptance. The Hospice Movement was/is based upon the “Christian attitude of unconditional love” and allows people to choose how they want to explore their grief. It is also to help manage the transition between healthy adult, to ill person, to dying, in a loving and supportive environment. Perhaps this is a sign of our growing acceptance of the inevitability of death.