Why We Feel Awkward Around Death and Dying
The following are my thoughts in process, so bear with me:
In ancient times, the mysticism of death and the human 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 1300 Pope Boniface VIII issued a Papal Bull the prohibited the cutting of dead bodies for the purpose of burial under threat of excommunications.
A scientific world-view enabled us to touch death. 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 culture began to diminish as the industrial age progressed. And as we’ve moved away from an agrarian culture 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 culture, 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 taken the care and the end-stage of life in the hands of the experts instead of the hands of family and friends.
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.