Thanatology is the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it, including the study of the needs of the terminally ill and their families. In promoting Befriending Death I am by definition engaging in developing our profound understanding of this subject. Everyone who works in end of life or post death circumstances is adding to our understanding and academic resources. Having made this assertion, it is therefore helpful to look at some of our collective human knowledge and discoveries as we consider our personal outlook on dying. This will hopefully underpin our improving relationship with our mortality.
Mankind has been curious about, if not fearful of death since he first walked upon the earth. At least, that is, since humans first became aware of their mortality. It is not known exactly when and how this came about but, it probably developed over a long period, along with all other human knowledge and awareness. Looking back in history what we can see evidence of is the development world wide in the form of death rituals, and this evidence becomes increasingly apparent as humans became more sophisticated. But actually, it may well be that some form of awareness and basic rituals were practiced much further back in our history than we can show.
It is also now recognised that animal species are more aware of the death of the members of their family and social groups than we previously thought, more so than a genetic survival mechanism might indicate. There are species that demonstrate emotional distress at the death of a companion and so as humans our awareness and discomfort at the prospect of our demise may go back further than we might imagine.
At this point I would like to introduce a historical figure of some importance.
Such is the huge part it plays in human existence and experience, many countries and cultures have a physical personification of death. Most of them are male but a few are female. One of the most common and enduring is the Grim Reaper, often described as a skeletal figure in black flowing robes and carrying a scythe.
The first mention of the Grim Reaper seems to have appeared in Europe in the 14th century. This is the time of the world’s worst pandemic, the Black Death, believed to have been caused by the Plague. It is estimated that around one third of Europe’s entire population died as a result of this pandemic, an estimated 20 – 30 million people. The original outbreak occurred between 1347 and 1351 with further outbreaks continuing after that.
The symptoms of plague are unpleasant. This disease caused chills, aches, vomiting and most often death amongst even the healthiest people in a matter of a few days. Depending on which type of plague the victim contracted, symptoms varied from pus-filled buboes to blood-filled coughing.
For those who lived long enough to exhibit symptoms, most victims of the plague initially experienced headaches that quickly turned into chills, fevers, and eventually exhaustion, and many also experienced nausea, vomiting, back pain, and soreness in their arms and legs, as well as all-over fatigue and general lethargy.
Often, swellings would appear which consisted of hard, painful, and burning lumps on the neck, under the arms, and on inner thighs. Soon, these swellings grew to the size of an orange and turned black, split open, and began to ooze pus and blood.
Lumps and swellings would cause internal bleeding, which led to blood in the urine, blood in the stools, and blood pooling under the skin, which resulted in black boils and spots all over the body. Everything that came out of the body smelled revolting, and people would suffer great pain before death, which usually occurred within a week of contracting the disease.
Little wonder that among all this disease, suffering and mass death people personified death as a dark, demonic reaper of souls in one mass swing of his scythe.
Do a quick search on Google images for ‘Death’ but don’t be surprised how many are of a Gothic nature and how many feature the Grim Reaper. In Western culture in the 21st century death still invokes dark images of horror, of Victorian cemeteries at night, of Hammer horror movies and cloaked dark destroyers. Such is this culture so ingrained in our psyche that it is little wonder that death holds so much fear, and little acceptance as natural.
We need to see death in the light of day.
Don’t fear the reaper
This has always been one of my favourite songs, long before I ever began working as a funeral director. Maybe this was a sign of an underlying interest. I don’t know the motivation for writing it or how seriously Blue Oyster Cult took the song. Maybe it was just a gimmick, but have a listen to the words again because they contain an awful lot of food for thought. I recently discovered that it was actually written as a love song.
Press play below to listen.