Grief, Loss, Death & Dying

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A Brief History of DeathReview - A Brief History of Death
by W.M. Spellman
Reaktion Books, 2014
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D.
Dec 23rd 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 52)

Historian W.M. Spellman has managed to provide in this book a relatively brief (250 pages or so) yet comprehensive review of many assorted aspects of death and dying, stretching from human prehistory up to our own time. The journey is fascinating, although the reader is taken at times by what appears to be the scenic route. A Brief History is written by an author who is obviously more than competent to extract and synthesize the most relevant information from both past and present.

On first opening the book, the reader will recall that death (for better or worse) is our constant companion.  We have all grieved the loss of loved ones and we all, at least on occasion, fret about our own mortality.  One of the consequences of the sort of self-consciousness of our species is the complementary awareness that our lives will have an end point and that there is a future in which we will have no active role. (With due respect to Star Trek writer Samuel Peeples, space is not the final frontier; death claims this honor.)

The book's formal divisions are few: it offers only five chapters plus a brief introduction and conclusion.  The chapter headings themselves are not especially revealing of the chapters' contents:  Preliminary Patterns; Thinking Things Through; Extraordinary Narratives; Adverse Environments; and Modern Reconsiderations.

Preliminary Patterns, the first chapter, deals with the period of early humans, perhaps 100,000 years ago through the time of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  (Earlier dates here are necessarily uncertain.)  Interpretation of the archaeological evidence of how our distant forebears regarded death is necessarily speculative.  Prior to written records, we must rely to a large extent on burials and cave art, but these obviously won't tell a complete story, and purposive burials may actually have been reserved for the elite or powerful rather than the common individual.  Most importantly, life in those times was much more precarious and brief, and "early peoples may have had little awareness of the inevitability of biological breakdown and personal death, so commonplace was . . . accident or violent encounter" (p. 19).

The second chapter, Thinking Things Through, leads off with Greek and Roman views, traditions, rituals and philosophic perspectives.  Here Spellman confidently calls on documented history and the extant records of the thoughts and philosophies of these cultures.  The early Greeks argued two disparate views: one being that a reality exists beyond that of our everyday senses and that disembodied souls carry on after (and perhaps prior to) this mortal life; or alternatively that the everyday physical reality is all there is and that thoughts, feelings and so on are all biological in origin and nature. (This is a debate that continues heatedly into our own time of course.)  This chapter also broadly touches on relevant ideas and thinkers from post-renaissance to modern times, including Hobbes, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Pascal.  The interesting story of Hume's deathwatch is told, and a bit later in this chapter comes a discussion of the dour views of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and then on to Freud, William James, Sartre, and Camus, with a nod to the summary judgment of Bertrand Russell:  "I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive."  Altogether this is a brief chapter of only 40 pages, it is a very compact synthesis and summary of the ideas of several centuries and many Western philosophers about the nature of death and, by implication, the purpose of life (or the absence thereof).

Chapter Three, Extraordinary Narratives, takes the reader back again in time, to the Axial Age (so named by Jaspers) of the second to eighth centuries BCE. These were golden years not only for Greek philosophy but was also the age of Confucius, Lao Tse, Gautama, Zarathustra, and the Jewish prophets.  This was the age in which many of today's religions had their roots, and from which came many ideas about the meaning of life and the possibilities of an existence after this life. From this period forward into Christianity, ideas and world views continued to evolve.  Spellman points out that, for example, in the Rome of two millennia ago, religion served primarily a social or cultural function.  (Though not mentioned here, the Lares, or household deities, likely served for individual or personal worship.)  But after Christianity took hold in the empire, the individual's relationship to a personal God brought a much different perspective on the meaning of life and death. In essence, one's mortal life is seen as temporary and a preparation for what comes next.

The fourth chapter, Adverse Environments, addresses the multitudinous ways in which we meet our end.  As earlier noted, until recently, old age was a relative rarity -- most people met death before middle age by way of accident, illness or violence.  While nowadays we're more alarmed at the prospect of death as sheer non-existence, in those earlier times "whatever level of fear was involved had more to do with the process of dying as opposed to the state of being dead" (p. 132).  In the earliest human environment, contagious viruses were probably not so much a worry but after settling in cities, plagues and virulent scourges became common and devastating to the cultures involved.  In addition, in earlier days the risks of childbirth and infant death were much greater than in our time.  Because life depended to a much greater extent on the beneficence of nature, death by malnutrition and starvation were not uncommon.  And of course warfare, in part driven by the need to control resources, was more or less constant.

In the final chapter, Modern Reconsiderations, Spellman gives the reader a rather overlong review of the history of suicide (and various cultures' perspectives on it), and a gloomy overview of the not-so-gradual banishment of the grim mechanics of death and dying from everyday life.  Even up until the recent past, people who were lucky enough to die from old age, or who contracted prolonged illnesses, were able to pass on surrounded by family and in the familiar surroundings of their homes and communities.  Preparation of the body and interment were binding rituals of the community.  For a variety of reasons, from public health concerns to our own squeamishness, the process of dying and the handling of the dead have been transferred to a funerary industry that handles everything from preparation of the body, strictly formalizing the viewing periods for relatives and friends, and the transport and burial in officially-approved locations. In the West, a psychological boundary has thus been erected between the living and the end stages of life.

The book is well written, though segue between topics can sometimes seem abrupt.  The reader is occasionally presented with an historical tidbit or abstract statistic (for example, on average about 155,000 of us will die every single day), and the complex ideas of some of the many philosophers and thinkers mentioned are necessarily abridged and readers not already quite familiar with these philosophers might get a misleading perspective on their overall views.

But these are minor issues and do not detract from the book's value.  It will be especially interesting and useful as supplementary reading in college classes on death and dying and in cultural history, and also useful for psychologists and grief counselors.  Each chapter can be read stand-alone, if one's interest is specialized, though taken as a whole would be the best approach for the general reader.


© 2014 Keith Harris


Keith Harris, Ph.D., is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.



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