Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Death at the V & A

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Death at the V & A

Article excerpt

Throughout the spring of 1992 they did death proud at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.(1) The response of both the public and the press was very positive. People were generally remarkably enthusiastic and at the same time apparently somewhat surprised at the emotional, sociological, artistic and philosophical richness of the theme illustrated in a temporary exhibition entitled The Art of Death: Objects from the English Death Ritual, 1500-1800. This was certainly ample warrant for the enterprise of bringing to a wider audience an aspect of cultural studies which has, of course, been the object of increasingly intense investigation by the international scholarly community for more than a generation.

For if nowadays there is on every hand a strong and ever-increasing tendency to dismiss all consideration of death as morbid, except when its violent and mysterious cause is to be the subject of investigations by Maigret, Morse or Miss Marples, historians of mentalites, with Philippe Aries in the van, have been reminding us of what, to be honest, had never been forgotten by those who read their Bacon and their Donne or, for that matter, their Montaigne and their Bossuet with any sympathy at all. Pascal might well say that when we die, we die alone. But really he was making a point in which his contemporaries might have discovered something of a paradox. Not only in the seventeenth century but earlier too and later on as well, the household of a dying person would have been full of others - family, clergy and members of the religious confraternities - who had come to assist, in both the French and the English senses of the verb, that is to help him or her to gain the greatest possible spiritual rewards from death, which was regarded as a unique and highly rated life experience, and also to profit on their own account from witnessing the edifying spectacle of a good end. Not for nothing does the Litany contain the petition that we may be spared a sudden and unprepared death. To go quickly, which most today account a secular blessing, meant forfeiting much that was regarded as highly valuable. It was not just to strike fear in people's hearts that the bell was tolled.

Sir Walter Raleigh's famous conceit likened life to a stage play where much is feigned but which ends sombrely enough with death in earnest. Imbued with the traditional vocabulary of stoicism no less than with its concepts, Montaigne likewise toyed with that imagery, finding a more challenging conclusion in the thought that if dying is the last act of life, it is the most important one too. It is only comparatively recently that death has been consigned to the wings, as a private matter, a biological collapse that preferably takes its course behind screens, not at home but in a hospital. It is characteristically followed these days by cremation, which conveniently disposes of embarrassing physical remains in filtered smoke wafted up pollution-controlled flues and, equally typically in an age that turns its back on monumental memorials, by the collection of contributions for some good cause for the benefit of those who remain alive.

Wearing mourning seems largely to have gone out of fashion during the Great War. Doing so in those years had come to be regarded by many as verging on a lack of patriotism, and shortages, as well as an appalling rush of orders, made the traditional observances impracticable. Yet it is significant that in Britain, except for the case of the most public of bereavements, the custom has not returned though these are times of unprecedented affluence for most people with few lacking, for instance, an appropriate change of leisure wear. Not everything of the old rituals of death has gone yet, ho,,yever. Undertakers make sure of that, pressurizing their bewildered clients who, in situations for which they are ill-prepared, are very suggestible. But a short announcement in the local press, a couple of limousines, half a dozen wreaths via Interflora and brass handles on the coffin are no more impressive relics of earlier funerals than the truncated order of service mumbled through by clergy who find it easier to talk vaguely about the deceased's life and work than to explicate unambiguously what the Church, always assuming it knows its own mind on the topic, would have us believe about death. …

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.