Death Through The Ages: A Brief Overview

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Death Through The Ages: A Brief Overview

Strange, is it not? That of the myriads who

Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through,

Not one returns to tell us of the Road,

Which to discover we must travel too.

Omar Khayya´m, Ruba´iya´t of Omar Khayya´m

Death is the inevitable conclusion of life, a universal destiny that all living creatures share. Even though all societies throughout history have realized that death is the certain fate of human beings, different cultures have responded to it in different ways. Through the ages, attitudes toward death and dying have changed and continue to change, shaped by religious, intellectual, and philosophical beliefs and conceptions. In the twenty-first century advances in medical science and technology continue to influence ideas about death and dying.


Archaeologists have found that as early as the Paleolithic period, about 2.5 million to 3 million years ago, humans held metaphysical beliefs about death and dyingthose beyond what humans can know with their senses. Tools and ornaments excavated at burial sites suggest that the earliest ancestors believed that some element of a person survived the dying experience.

Ancient Hebrews (c. 1020586 B.C.), while acknowledging the existence of the soul, were not preoccupied with the afterlife. They lived according to the commandments of their God, to whom they entrusted their eternal destiny. By contrast, early Egyptians (c. 2900950 B.C.) thought that the preservation of the dead body (mummification) guaranteed a happy afterlife. They believed a person had a dual soul: the ka and the ba. The ka was the spirit that dwelled near the body, whereas the ba was the vitalizing soul that lived on in the netherworld (the world of the dead). Similarly, the ancient Chinese (c. 25001000 B.C.) also believed in a dual soul, one part of which continued to exist after the death of the body. It was this spirit that the living venerated during ancestor worship.

Among the ancient Greeks (c. 26001200 B.C.), death was greatly feared. Greek mythologywhich was full of tales of gods and goddesses who exacted punishment on disobedient humanscaused the living to follow rituals meticulously when burying their dead so as not to displease the gods. Even though reincarnation is usually associated with Asian religions, some Greeks were followers of Orphism, a religion that taught that the soul underwent many reincarnations until purification was achieved.


Mythological beliefs among the ancient Greeks persisted into the classical age. The Greeks believed that after death the psyche (a person's vital essence) lived on in the underworld. The Greek writer Homer (c. eighth centuryc. seventh century B.C.) greatly influenced classical Greek attitudes about death through his epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. Greek mythology was freely interpreted by writers after Homer, and belief in eternal judgment and retribution continued to evolve throughout this period.

Certain Greek philosophers also influenced conceptions of death. For example, Pythagoras (569?475? B.C.) opposed euthanasia (good death or mercy killing) because it might disturb the soul's journey toward final purification as planned by the gods. On the contrary, Socrates (470?399? B.C.) and Plato (428348 B.C.) believed people could choose to end their life if they were no longer useful to themselves or the state.

Like Socrates and Plato, the classical Romans (c. 509264 B.C.) believed a person suffering from intolerable pain or an incurable illness should have the right to choose a good death. They considered euthanasia a mode of dying that allowed a person's right to take control of an intolerable situation and distinguished it from suicide, an act considered to be a shirking of responsibilities to one's family and to humankind.


During the European Middle Ages (c. 5001485), deathwith its accompanying agonieswas accepted as a destiny everyone shared, but it was still feared. As a defense against this phenomenon that could not be explained, medieval people confronted death together, as a community. Because medical practices in this era were crude and imprecise, the ill and dying person often endured prolonged suffering. However, a long period of dying gave the dying individual an opportunity to feel forewarned about impending death, to put his or her affairs in order, and to confess sins. The medieval Roman Catholic Church, with its emphasis on the eternal life of the soul in heaven or hell, held great power over people's notions of death.

By the late Middle Ages the fear of death had intensified due to the Black Deaththe great plague of 1347 to 1351. The Black Death killed more than twenty-five million people in Europe alone. Commoners watched not only their neighbors stricken but also saw church officials and royalty struck down: Queen Eleanor of Aragon and King Alfonso XI (13111350) of Castile met with untimely deaths, and so did many at the papal court at Avignon, France. With their perceived proper order of existence shaken, the common people became increasingly preoccupied with their own death and with the Last Judgment, God's final and certain determination of the character of each individual. Because the Last Judgment was closely linked to an individual's disposition to heaven or hell, the event of the plague and such widespread death was frightening.


From the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, Europe experienced new directions in economics, the arts, and social, scientific, and political thought. Nonetheless, obsession with death did not diminish with this rebirth of Western culture. A new self-awareness and emphasis on humans as the center of the universe further fueled the fear of dying.

By the sixteenth century many European Christians were rebelling against religion and had stopped relying on church, family, and friends to help ease their passage to the next life. The religious upheaval of the Protestant Reformation of 1520, which emphasized the individual nature of salvation, caused further uncertainties about death and dying.

The seventeenth century marked a shift from a religious to a more scientific exploration of death and dying. Lay people drifted away from the now disunited Christian church toward the medical profession, seeking answers in particular to the question of apparent death, a condition in which people appeared to be dead but were not. In many cases unconscious patients mistakenly believed to be dead were hurriedly prepared for burial by the clergy, only to come back to life during burial or while being transported to the cemetery.

An understanding of death and its aftermath was clearly still elusive, even to physicians who disagreed about what happened after death. Some physicians believed the body retained some kind of sensibility after death. Thus, many people preserved cadavers so that the bodies could live on. Alternatively, some physicians applied the teachings of the Catholic Church to their medical practice and believed that once the body was dead, the soul proceeded to its eternal fate and the body could no longer survive. These physicians did not preserve cadavers and pronounced them permanently dead.


The fear of apparent death that took root in the seventeenth century resurfaced with great intensity during the eighteenth century. Coffins were built with contraptions to enable any prematurely buried person to survive and communicate from the grave. (See Figure 1.1.)

For the first time, the Christian church was blamed for hastily burying its living dead, particularly because it had encouraged the abandonment of pagan burial traditions such as protracted mourning rituals. In the wake of apparent death incidents, more long burial traditions were revived.


Premature and lingering deaths remained commonplace in the nineteenth century. Death typically took place in the home following a long deathbed watch. Family members prepared the corpse for viewing in the home, not in a funeral parlor. However, this practice changed during the late nineteenth century, when professional undertakers took over the job of preparing and burying the dead. They provided services such as readying the corpse for viewing and burial, building the coffin, digging the grave, and directing the funeral procession. Professional embalming and cosmetic restoration of bodies became widely available, all carried out in a funeral parlor where bodies were then viewed instead of in the home.

Cemeteries changed as well. Before the early nineteenth century, American cemeteries were unsanitary, overcrowded, and weed-filled places bearing an odor of decay. That began to change in 1831, when the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased seventy-two acres of fields, ponds, trees, and gardens in Cambridge and built Mount Auburn Cemetery. This cemetery was to become a model for the landscaped garden cemetery in the United States. These cemeteries were tranquil places where those grieving could visit the graves of loved ones and find comfort in the beautiful surroundings.

Literature of the time often focused on and romanticized death. Death poetry, consoling essays, and mourning manuals became available after 1830, which comforted the grieving with the concept that the deceased were released from worldly cares in heaven and that they would be reunited there with other deceased loved ones. The deadly lung disease tuberculosiscalled consumption at the timewas pervasive during the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States. The disease caused sufferers to develop a certain appearancean extreme pallor and thinness, with a look often described as hauntedthat actually became a kind of fashion statement. The fixation on the subject by writers such as Edgar Allan Poe (18091849) and the English Romantic poets helped fuel the public's fascination with death and dying. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the popularization of the Goth look is sometimes associated with the tubercular appearance.


By the mid-nineteenth century the romanticizing of death took on a new twist in the United States. Spiritualism, in which the living communicate directly with the dead, began in 1848 in the United States with the Fox sisters: Margaret Fox (1833?1893) and Catherine Fox (1839?1892) of Hydesville, New York. The sisters claimed to have communicated with the spirit of a man murdered by a former tenant in their house. The practice of conducting sittings to contact the dead gained instant popularity. Mediums, such as the Fox sisters, were supposedly sensitive to vibrations from the disembodied souls that temporarily lived in that part of the spirit world just outside the earth's limits.

This was not the first time people tried to communicate with the dead. Spiritualism has been practiced in cultures all over the world. For example, many Native Americans believe shamans (priests or medicine men) have the power to communicate with the spirits of the dead. The Old Testament (I Samuel 28:719) recounts the visit of King Saul to a medium at Endor, who summoned the spirit of the prophet Samuel, which predicted the death of Saul and his sons.

The mood in the United States in the 1860s and 1870s was ripe for Spiritualist s´ances. Virtually everyone had lost a son, husband, or other loved one during the Civil War (18611865). Some survivors wanted assurances that their loved ones were all right; others were simply curious about life after death. Those who had drifted away from traditional Christianity embraced this new Spiritualism, which claimed scientific proof of survival after physical death.


Modern medicine has played a vital role in the way people die and, consequently, the manner in which the dying process of a loved one affects relatives and friends. With advancements in medical technology, the dying process has become depersonalized, as it has moved away from the familiar surroundings of home and family to the sterile world of hospitals and strangers. Certainly, the institutionalization of death has not diminished the fear of dying. Now, the fear of death also involves the fear of separation: for the living, the fear of not being present when a loved one dies, and for the dying, the prospect of facing death without the comforting presence of a loved one.

Changing Attitudes

In the last decades of the twentieth century, attitudes about death and dying slowly began to change. Aging baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964), facing the deaths of their parents, began to confront their own mortality. Even though medical advances continue to increase life expectancy, they have raised an entirely new set of issues associated with death and dying. For example, how long should advanced medical technology be used to keep comatose people alive? How should the elderly or incapacitated be cared for? Is it reasonable for people to stop medical treatment, or even actively end their life, if that is what they wish?

The works of the psychiatrist Elisabeth K¨bler-Ross (19262004), including the pioneering book On Death and Dying (1969), have helped individuals from all walks of life confront the reality of death and restore dignity to those who are dying. Considered to be a highly respected authority on death, grief, and bereavement, K¨bler-Ross influenced the medical practices undertaken at the end of life, as well as the attitudes of physicians, nurses, clergy, and others who care for the dying.

During the late 1960s medical education was revealed to be seriously deficient in areas related to death and dying. However, initiatives under way in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have offered more comprehensive training about end-of-life care. With the introduction of in-home hospice care, more terminally ill people have the option of spending their final days at home with their loved ones. With the veil of secrecy lifted and open public discussions about issues related to the end of life, Americans appear more ready to learn about death and to learn from the dying.

Hospice Care

In the Middle Ages hospices were refuges for the sick, the needy, and travelers. The modern hospice movement developed in response to the need to provide humane care to terminally ill patients, while at the same time lending support to their families. The English physician Dame Cicely Saunders (1918) is considered the founder of the modern hospice movementfirst in England in 1967 and later in Canada and the United States. The soothing, calming care provided by hospice workers is called palliative care, and it aims to relieve patients' pain and the accompanying symptoms of terminal illness, while providing comfort to patients and their families.

Hospice may refer to a placea freestanding facility or designated floor in a hospital or nursing homeor to a program such as hospice home care, in which a team of health-care professionals helps the dying patient and family at home. Hospice teams may involve physicians, nurses, social workers, pastoral counselors, and trained volunteers.

WHY PEOPLE CHOOSE HOSPICE CARE. Hospice workers consider the patient and family to be the unit of care and focus their efforts on attending to emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs as well as to physical comfort and well-being. With hospice care, as a patient nears death, medical details move to the background as personal details move to the foreground to avoid providing care that is not wanted by the patient, even if some clinical benefit might be expected.

THE POPULATION SERVED. Hospice facilities served 621,100 people in 2000; of these, 85.5% died while in hospice care. (See Table 1.1.) Nearly 80% of hospice patients were sixty-five years of age and older, and 26.5%were eighty-five years of age or older. Male hospice patients numbered 309,300, whereas 311,800 were female. The vast majority (84.1%) was white. Approximately half (46.6%) of the patients served were unmarried, but most of these unmarried patients were widowed. Nearly 79% of patients used Medicare as their primary source of payment for hospice services.

Even though more than half (57.5%) of those admitted to hospice care in 2000 had cancer (malignant neoplasms) as a primary diagnosis, patients with other primary diagnoses, such as Alzheimer's disease and heart, respiratory, and kidney diseases, were also served by hospice. (See Table 1.2.)

Hospice care discharges by length of service, according to selected patient characteristics, 2000
Length of service in days
DischargesPercent distribution
Discharge characteristicNumberPercent distributionTotalLess than 30 days30 days or moreAverage length of serviceMedian length of service
* Data do not meet standard of reliability or precision (sample size is less than 30) and are, therefore, not reported. If shown with a number, data should not be assumed reliable because the sample size is 3059.
a Prior to 1998, only one race was recorded. Since 1998, more than one race may be recorded. The categories white and black or African American include only those discharges for whom that one race was reported. Discharges for whom more than one race was reported are included in black or African American and other races.
b Includes private insurance, own income, family support, Social Security benefits, retirement funds, and welfare.
c Includes unknown source and no charge for care.
d Includes recovered, stabilized, treatment plan completed, no longer eligible for hospice care, and insurance coverage no longer available.
e Includes transferred to hospital, nursing home, or other inpatient or residental care.
Notes: Numbers may not add to totals because of rounding. Percents and average and median lengths of service are based on the unrounded figures.
SOURCE: Barbara J. Haupt, Table 1. Number and Percent Distribution of Hospice Care Discharges by Length of Service, According to Selected Patient Characteristics: United States, 2000, in Characteristics of Hospice Care Discharges and Their Length of Service: United States, 2000, Vital and Health Statistics, series 13, no. 154, August 2003, (accessed January 28, 2008)
Age at discharge
Under 65 years126,90020.4100.064.135.943.915.0
65 years and over494,30079.6100.062.437.647.716.3
6574 years153,10024.7100.
7584 years176,40028.4100.062.337.750.616.5
85 years and over164,80026.5100.060.239.850.515.9*
Race a
Black or African American and other races 64,30010.3100.068.531.553.6*15.8
Black or African American 50,1008.1100.066.833.261.1*14.9*
Unknown 34,4005.5100.055.544.5*36.726.8*
Marital status at discharge
Not married289,50046.6100.058.841.254.118.5
Divorced or separated35,2005.7100.063.136.974.8*14.3*
Single or never married47,9007.7100.056.343.741.519.5*
Primary source of payment
All other sources133,20021.4100.067.632.442.410.3*
Reason for discharge
Did not die90,20014.5100.039.560.573.143.6*
Services no longer needed from agencyd49,0007.9100.029.2*70.886.264.7
Transferred to inpatient caree14,5002.3100.0*63.9*81.771.0
Other and unknown26,7004.3100.060.2*39.8*44.410.0*
Hospice care discharges, by primary and all-listed diagnoses at admission, 2000
Primary diagnosisaAll-listed diagnosesb
DiagnosisNumber of dischargesPercentNumber of diagnosesPercent
* Figure does not meet standard of reliability or precision because the sample size is less than 30 if shown without an estimate. If shown with an estimate, the sample size is between 0 and 59.
Category not applicable.
a Primary diagnosis is the diagnosis that is chiefly responsible for the discharges's admission to hospice care.
b Up to six diagnoses are recorded for each patient at admission.
Notes: Numbers may not add to totals because of rounding. Percentages are based on the unrounded numbers.
SOURCE: Table 13. Number and Percentage of Hospice Care Discharges, by Primary and All-Listed Diagnoses at Admission: United States, 2000, in Hospice Care Discharges, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, February 2004, (accessed January 28, 2008)
Infectious and parasitic diseases11,400*1.8*18,900*1.3*
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease9,400*1.5*9,700*0.8*
Malignant neoplasms357,00057.5592,00046.8
Malignant neoplasms of large intestine and rectum51,5008.360,0004.7
Malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lung120,50019.4146,10011.5
Malignant neoplasm of bone, connective tissue and skin10,500*1.7*46,0003.6
Malignant neoplasm of breast16,4002.618,0001.4
Malignant neoplasm of female genital organs15,200*2.5*15,700*1.2*
Malignant neoplasm of prostate20,6003.333,7002.7
Malignant neoplasm of urinary organs15,5002.526,9002.1
Malignant neoplasm of hemotopoietic tissue22,5003.630,6002.4
Malignant neoplasm of other and unspecified sites84,20013.6214,90017.0
Endocrine, nutritional, and metabolic diseases and immunity disorders**60,1004.2
Diabetes mellitus**47,1003.7
Mental disorders23,8003.858,6004.1
Diseases of the nervous system and sense organs32,1005.264,7004.5
Alzheimer's disease16,900*2.7*27,600*2.2*
Diseases of the circulatory system72,90011.7243,10016.9
Heart disease42,5006.8109,2008.6
Ischemic heart disease**21,600*1.7*
Congestive heart failure23,5003.849,6003.9
Cerebrovascular disease16,9002.737,8003.0
Other diseases of the circulatory system29,6004.883,9006.6
Diseases of the respiratory system42,8006.9124,2008.6
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and allied conditions27,6004.465,8005.2
Diseases of the digestive system12,000*1.9*36,1002.5
Diseases of the genitourinary system7,600*1.2*32,2002.2
Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue**22,800*1.6*
Symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions34,8005.692,9006.5
Supplementary classification**23,700*1.6*
Posthospital aftercare**16,600*1.3*
Unknown or no diagnosis**