Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature

By Gail Holst-Warhaft | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

Death, tears and ideas: lament in cross-cultural perspective

LAMENT IN THE CONTEXT OF DEATH RITUALS

The current interest in death as a general topic of research—what has been termed the ‘death awareness’ movement (Huntington and Metcalfe 1979), began in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the publication in Encounter in 1955 of Geoffrey Gorer’s article ‘The Pornography of Death’, closely followed by Jessica Mitford’s book. The American Way of Death. Both had an immediate popular appeal and both were critical of contemporary western attitudes to death. Gorer’s article claimed that as Victorian taboos about sexuality declined, they were replaced by new taboos about death. These taboos led to a sort of ‘social invisibility of death’ and to restrictions on outward expressions of grief and mourning. Mitford’s book was directed against the funeral industry for profiteering on people’s distress and creating an elaborate display that she saw as being inappropriate to the American way of life.

Since the publication of Gorer’s and Mitford’s writings, a vast body of literature has been published in a variety of fields about the death rituals of the west. Among the more influential scholarly approaches to the subject have been the work of two French scholars, Philippe Ariès and Michel Vovelle. In his survey of eight hundred years of thinking about death in the west, 1 Ariès denies the importance of political and ideological change affecting western attitudes to death. Instead he sees such changes taking place at a non-conceptual level, in a realm he terms pensée confusée. In other words we change our attitudes to death in a way which is intuitive rather than conscious. Vovelle, 2 who approaches the subject as a Marxist, claims that

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