Fear of Death

I wish I could remember where I either heard or read Jürgen Moltmann describe the relationship her perceived between our fear death and our city planning. Unfortunately I can’t remember the source so as to cite it. I will briefly describe what I remember and then add the fascinating info I learned from the wonderful podcast “Backstory” (which you should listen to if you are a history buff).

150 years ago if you were close to a non-accidental death you would probably be at home and die at surrounded by loved ones. Once you died your body would be taken care of, washed and prepared for burial, by those same loved ones. You would would be left in your, or a family member’s, parlor for a wake, and then be buried in the center of the community next to the church, where your loved ones who pass by you regularly. You would be dead and yet still a part of the community.

Now if you are close to a non-accidental death you are most likely in a hospital surrounded by professionals. Actually, if you are really close to death you will most likely be pushed away from the regular hospital population to a special hospice area, almost like we are afraid your death will spread to others who are supposed to get better. When you die your body will then be handed over to other professionals who will clean and prepare your body for burial by pumping you full of chemicals. These chemicals will allow your spread out family members to make it to the funeral home for a your funeral, which will most likely be held in a funeral parlor. You will then be buried on the outskirts of the city in a cemetery that will require your loved ones to make special trips in order to see your grace.

When I read/heard this I was amazed by the point that was being made – a connection between a fear of death and our city planning. Then this week I listened to the “Backstory” podcast “Grave Matters.” This podcast episode is a history of death and mourning in America. One of the segments deals with the amazing amount of influence that the massive death toll of the Civil War has had on American culture. Much of modern ritual around death and burial is shaped by the Civil War and the understanding of the “good death” at that time. The basic understanding of a “good death” was to:

  • to be ready for death
  • to died at home
  • to die surrounded by loved ones
  • to die at peace

The Civil War made much of those four goals impossible for many. Death happened suddenly, away from home, surrounded by enemies and strangers, in fear. Thanks to better development in chemical embalming the funeral industry tried to jump into the breach. Embalming meant that a chemically preserved body could be shipped back to the family. Professionals then encouraged people to no longer hold the wake in the family parlor. Instead, they created funeral parlors for people to use for their wakes. American culture reacted by disassociating the word “parlor” from the home. If parlors were now a part of the funeral homes, then to avoid the idea of death we would change the name of that room in our homes. So we picked a new name that would be the most opposite possible of the parlor room that we used to use for wakes. We picked “living room,” which ironically is still where the least amount of living in most homes takes place.

Anyhow the whole thing fascinated me.

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