Why We Feel Awkward Around Death and Dying
The following are my thoughts in process, so bear with me:
In times less graced by natural science, the mysticism of death and the haunting of the disembodied soul kept death on the outside of community.
In fact, even those who handled the dead were the “other”. We were ostracized, considered unclean and sometimes we were considered untouchable.
In the Canary Islands from 900 BC, the “Guanche” embalmers were well paid for their practices, but were considered contaminated and lived in an ostracized community. In Judaism the Torah specifies that “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days” (Numbers 19:1).
In fact, as recent as 1300 AD Pope Boniface VIII issued a Papal Bull that prohibited the cutting of dead bodies for the purpose of burial under threat of excommunication.
The Dark Age gave way to progress, and natural science enabled us to touch death without fear of haunting. It demystified death to the point we could gather around and feel the life of death in community. It enabled embalming. It enabled extended viewings. It enabled us to understand causes, manners and the process of death and dying.
Yet, as science and technology advanced, the agrarian society began to diminish as the industrial age progressed. And as we’ve moved away from an agrarian society where death (of children, of animals) was a normal part of life, death has again become more of an outsider that has been institutionalized and handed over to the care of the medical professions.
Science demystified death and then mystified it again.
In an agrarian society, death occurs in the context of community. In an individualistic, industrial society, death becomes institutionalized, being pushed away – again – to the outside of our lives and the outside of community. And while the advancements of modern medicine are praiseworthy, they’ve placed the care and the end-stage of life in the hands of the experts instead of the hands of family and friends.
Nursing homes have become storage houses where the death professionals aid the transition from this world to the next world, and rob the rest of us of the community treasures produced by dying and death. At one time, death was mystical and placed on the fringe of community because of our lack of understanding of death and dying. Today, our understanding of death has again caused it to be mystical, as it’s found itself outside community and in hospitals and nursing homes.
Today, death is on the outside of life. And that’s why it’s so awkward for us. And that’s why we fear it. That’s why we shield our children from it and dread speaking about it.
And yet finding a way to invite death back into our lives is becoming possible with the advent of palliative care, home deaths and green burials.
In an industrial society, a person’s worth is often tied to what they can produce. As soon as we begin the end-stage of life, productivity stops and we too often view the dying as dead, at which point we ship our dying to a nursing home or hospital where they can completing the dying and death away from us.
But in dying, there is life, for both the sick and the caregivers. Hospice and palliative care allow us to get the most life out of death while still providing the advantages of medication; and for many who are dying, hospice care is given for free through Medicare.
We should find that when death is invited into our life, it will only strengthen us and our community. And it’s time we take advantage of the invitations hospice has given us. It’s time we find a way to include both dying and death instead of excluding it. It’s time we learn to live with death and grow out of this awkward phase.