The Culture of Death

The Culture of Death

The Culture of Death

The Culture of Death

Synopsis

Western culture has always been obsessed with death, but now death has taken on a new, anonymous form. The twentieth century saw the mass production of corpses through war and the triumph of technology over the human body. The new millennium has opened with global terrorism and the suspension of human rights in far-flung prison camps. We live in an age of panic, when the fear of death at any time and in any place is present. And we live in an age of apathy towards both science and institutional politics, an age which has sanctioned the rise of techno-medical and political powers which can deny our control over our own bodies and lives and the lives of others. The Culture of Death explores this moment to analyze our exposure to death in modern culture.

Excerpt

How can we understand the culture of death today? P. D. James (b. 1920) is one of the most widely respected of contemporary British crime writers. In her novel The Black Tower the detective hero Adam Dalgliesh considers just this question: 'Now that death had replaced sex as the great unmentionable it had acquired its own prudency; to die when you had not yet become a nuisance and before your friends could reasonably raise the ritual chant of “happy release” was in the worst of taste' (1977: 9). He expresses the common perception that death is replacing sex as the new taboo subject in modern culture. However, if death is taboo and we are less comfortable at dealing with death than previous generations, then why is crime fiction, which is relentlessly focused on death, so popular? P. D. James, for example, is well known for her graphic descriptions of dead bodies and for creating hideously baroque murders. Also, if death is so taboo then how do we account for the fact that the media continues to give us increasingly explicit representations of death? The television images and photographs of the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center throwing themselves to certain death to avoid being burned alive are only one recent and traumatic example of our exposure to death in contemporary culture.

The idea that modern death is taboo is one that has become entrenched in popular understanding, despite many criticisms. What is the usual story? To take the example of Britain, during the nineteenth century the Victorian way of death put an emphasis on the family farewell for the dying and a complex culture of mourning with ostentatious displays of grief (see Jalland, 1999). Far from death being taboo there was even a widespread children's literature designed to help prepare them for the possibility of their . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.