A Brief History of Death

A quick view on the evolution of death on the western word.

Oscar Wilde's grave, Perre Lachaise, Paris

The cult of death is as ancient as civilisations themselves. Bataille relates the awareness of its own death with the surface of the Homo sapiens, as if, at the moment humanity recognised death, it distinguished itself and could evolve.

In Ancient Egypt, the importance of death was so great that to it were dedicated stone monuments in the form of pyramids, tombs, sculptures and paintings. They believed sculptural reproduction of a person would make their life be prolonged to the after-life, and images of Anubis performing the heart-weighting ritual are common-place. These funerary arts had great symbolic value, locked away inside the tombs of pharaohs, they were made for death itself, and not for the eyes of the living.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, before their classic religions were formed as they are known today, the dead were venerated as private, house gods. Each family had their own divine flame, a pyre in their homes that was kept lit at all times and represented the dead. It was the religious centre of the house. These families from antiquity would visit their ancestors in private rituals and offer them drinks and a special repast. There were rigorous rituals for burial that could not be overlooked.

During the classical age, up until the early medieval times, for religious and hygiene purposes, the dead were placed in underground catacombs outside the edge of the cities, on roadsides. They would receive individual burials and they could be visited and worshiped by their living family members. These places were known as Necropolis, the city of the dead.

It was in the catacombs where the first secret meetings of the Christian faith, in a time when they were persecuted, happened, and it was inside them that the new religion first expressed itself artistically with Greek painting technics. The catacombs continued being used by Christians as burial places, first with cremated remains, and then with the whole bodies, through the first centuries of Christianity up until the mid-V century.

Coming from Africa, the cult of martyrs spread around the Christian world still in its dawn; it would take the faithful to want to be buried next to martyrs for protection in the after-life. Due to the exponential rise of the number of Christians during the IV century, and the beginning of a time of grave robbery in the catacombs, in the V century martyrs were transferred to churches, where they started being buried, and so, the faithful started to gradually be buried in churches as well, until by the VIII century, catacombs were no longer in use.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that the luxury of a church burial was only given to those who had money. This was a paid privilege, and those who couldn’t afford it had their final destination in public pits that would be filled in when full, and a new one opened. Older burial pits were emptied ad the remaining bones would be sent to ossuaries under the churches, where they would be stored or exposed as art.

At this moment, death becomes anonymous; the habit of marking graves was lost, and the dead spread under the stones on churches floors and the holy sites around them. Life gains, thus an unprecedented affinity with death, that would last for a thousand years. Grief happens only at the moment of death, intense and emotional, but doesn’t prolong itself after the burial. Acceptance of death marks medieval society, and people become accustomed to the idea of dying, and what happens to the body isn’t important as long as it remains in holy ground.

So, in the graveyards around churches, at first spaces of refuge and shelter, the urban life flourishes. They would hold commerce, dances, games, and scribes would offer their services there. Public life concentrates itself over the dead, turning this an area of interest around which houses were built.

From the XII century onwards, there is a slow return to the individualisation of the dead. Wealthy people even pay for masses to be celebrated in their honour on a regular basis, and funerary inscriptions start being used again. From the XIII to the XVIII century, small plaques covered the walls of churches, each carrying individually the name of someone buried there. This behavioural change came from celebrated characters that started to be identified after death, and gradually individualism returned, as if in the moment of their death, people became aware of their own individuality.

With this, funerary art starts being developed. The simple marking of tombs evolves into effigies and mortuary masks that truthfully represent the face of the dead. This art continued to gain strength and representation of the dead spread around graves, either praying or resting. Once more this is a luxury for those in condition to pay for it, while the small plaques continue being used by the majority. On these plaques there could also be written the testaments and last wills os the dead.

During this process of return of individuality, grieving starts to become more restrained. It turns into, besides the religious ceremony, the realisation of the last will that should be carried out by the family. During the XIX century, when wills become a legal document dealt with by lawyers, the family is freed to return to the medieval state of flamboyant grief.

During the XVIII century, populational increase, that leads to the increase of the number of dead in churches, and the growing hygienist and public health concerns bring forward arguments against the burials inside the cities. It was believed that the smell from corpses transmitted sickness and there were complaints over the disrespectful way many churches treated their dead. Many thinkers would also say it was indecorous that the living would inhabit the same space where the dead were buried in the spaces of worship. Thus, propositions started to be made for the removal of the dead from the churches to specific grounds outside the cities.

In the second half of the century, these arguments became political discussions, met with disapproval from the population. Many feared that removing the dead from churches would be a direct attack on their religion and their cult of the dead. This indignation intensified the discourse for the places of burial, which should respect the rites, and welcome the living.

Authors and theoreticians from the time claimed for places that were, at the same time, parks organised for family visitation, and museums for illustrious people, and even with the popular dissatisfaction, at the end of the XVIII and beginning of the XIX century, all around Europe bodies star being removed from churches, starting the age of burials in cemeteries outside the cities.

This initiative creates certain separation from the power of the church over death, but that didn’t stop it from soon claiming the space in a way that it could no longer be separated from the Christian mentality.

Different from the fear of the population, this seclusion of the dead didn’t distance death but created a propitious space where it could be worshiped and adored. These new spaces found fertile ground in the romantic mind of the XIX century, and in a way, influenced it. Death starts being worshiped and grieving becomes a mandatory process. Death is romanticised, and people see in it something to be hoped for; people would lament the death of the loved ones, and aspire for their own. This mentality of adoration of death can be evidenced in the works of many writers and poets who, since the late XVIII century romanticised the relation between the grave and the cult of melancholy.

It is in the cemeteries of the XIX century, as well, that develops a certain notion of nationalism over the glorification of great people who had died. This mentality can be seen in the Pantheon in Paris and the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, places that hold countrymen of importance.

Dealing with the construction of cemeteries in Europe in the XIX century, there are two main typologies from two different cultural and religious backgrounds. In the protestant north, there are more restrained cemeteries, with emphasis on green areas and more discrete tombstones. On the Catholic south, funerary art develops further in cemeteries filled with sculptures rich in detail.

During the XX century, people start once again to be drawn away from death, turning it and grieving into a taboo.

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A Brief History of Death