Death and Modernity: Literature Review (Part A)


This paper firstly applies a literature review in order to address the question of how death is generally perceived within the Western framework of modernity. In light of this inquisition, the notion of ‘decontextualization’ in relation to death is introduced, whereby it is argued that the notion of death is deliberately avoided to the greatest possible extent, whether as a topic of conversation or as an imminent natural phenomenon in one’s life. Ultimately, it is posited that the current stance toward death within a modern, Western framework is one that is inherently detrimental to people’s psychological wellbeing, in that death is perceived as the unnatural ‘other’. In response to this, the case study (Part B) of this paper explores the notion of death from a traditional African perspective, with particular emphasis on Tshivenda speaking communities. This is done in order to show an alternative approach to death and bereavement, whereby a more community-centred grieving process is argued for, in conjunction with specific rituals surrounding death, that have a more positive and dignifying outcome on the psychological wellbeing of both a dying person, as well as the left-behind relatives of such a person.

Part A – Literature Review

1. Introduction

Upon being interviewed about his feelings toward death, Woody Allen infamously remarked, “My relationship to death remains the same. I’m strongly against it”. Despite his distinct black humour in this excerpt, Allen’s stance towards the notion of death and dying is a stance that mirrors how the majority of people feel. In modern society, the philosophical understanding of death remains as enigmatic, elusive and unexplainable as ever before. In a world that is marked by complexity, multiplicity and immense cultural diversity, death and dying has been approached from a vast amount of different angles and perspectives throughout history. In this essay, I aim to explore the cultural understanding of and perspective towards death within the context of the ‘Western world’. Without attempting to over-generalize, the ‘West’, for the purpose of this essay, implies the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions on the one hand, and the secular, humanist world on the other; both within a modernist, 21st-century framework. Through this cultural exploration, I aim to show that the modern stance towards death is one that ultimately tends to ‘pathologize’ and ‘decontextualise’ death, leading to both psychological despair for the bereaved, as well as a lack of human dignity for the dying, especially within the context of medical advancement, technology and modern hospitals. In the case study (Part B) of this paper, the topic of post-humus burial rites and traditions within an African context will then be analysed in order to portray that there are ways to contextualise death, for example through certain community practices, which both restore dignity to the deceased, and offer constructive consoling to the deceased’s left-behind loved ones.

2. Problem Statement

Within a modernist setting, whereby the majority of people are caught up in a race towards progress, advancement and improvement, the notion of death within life is often overlooked, neglected or quite frankly unexplored. The fear of death is a universal fear, and it is a fear that infiltrates the ways in which we cope and deal with the deaths of those around us. This fear, in combination with a ‘westernized’ world view, whereby an emphasis is strongly placed on the preservation of life through the advancement of medical technology and science, has led to the view of death as being an unnatural ‘taboo’, in that it is something which modernity has failed to overcome. From an anthropological perspective, a general consensus exists that Americans- and by extension the ‘western world’ have a problem in dealing with death (Palgi & Abromovitch, 1984). This problem is partly characterized by a psychological “denial of death”, and partly by a more general kind of apathy towards death, “characteristic of a situation in which one does not know quite what to do” (Palgi & Abromovitch, 1984: 3). Thus, this essay firstly aims to understand the underlying assumptions and historical developments that gave rise to this morphed, modern view of death, whereby it is strongly “decontextualized” from the reality of our lives. In seeking an alternative perspective towards death, a traditional, African perspective is then used in the case study section (Part B) to portray the influence that rites and rituals, from a community-based approach, can have on a person’s perspective towards death and the means in which they deal with and overcome the deaths of loved ones.

3. Death and Modernity

Robert Lifton (1979: 18), a psychiatrist who synthesized knowledge from his own profession with historical theory, anthropology and philosophy, made the claim that in Western society, “the link between life and death has been severed”, leading to what he called “the broken connection”. In understanding how this severance arose, it is helpful to firstly understand the more natural fear of death that people generally face. Van Niekerk (1999: 226) attributes our fear of death to the fact that life is itself a “scarce commodity” that can be taken or lost at any given moment. Furthermore, he posits that we fear death because it places us before what is inherently and radically unknown, as well as what is ultimately “incomprehensible” (Van Niekerk, 1999: 226). Bringing this fear into the frame of modernity, there are various crucial implications for the notion of death. Modernity hereby implies the “era in which human reason becomes the measure of all value”, that stems from the resistance to outdated authority by thinkers such as Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon (Van Niekerk, 1999: 226). Ultimately, modernity can be described as the striving towards perpetual progress, on the foundation of science and technology’s seemingly limitless potential. In light of this apparently infinite scalability of human advancement, the notion of death has itself become a “Fremdkörper”, whereby it is perceived as an anomaly or an “embarrassment” (Van Niekerk, 1999:226). Bauman (1992: 137) hereby describes death as the “skeleton in the cupboard” or “guilty secret” of our time, in that death is one of the few things that the project of modernity has failed to address and overcome. Aries (1981: 568-70) hereby notes that in the modern age, death is depicted and perceived as something “improper” and “indecent”, which ought to be avoided at all costs, and which is perceived as “taboo” in terms of being a conversation topic (Kubler-Ross, 1969: 8).

4. Decontextualisation of Death

In understanding death in a modern context, it can ultimately be described as being decontextualized from our everyday lives, in that we generally avoid confronting death as a reality within our everyday contexts and actions.

Baumann (1992) describes the phenomenon of death in the modern era as the “deconstruction of mortality”, which can be understood as a strategy in terms of which death is broken down into many pieces for the purposes of making it more manageable. This trend is arguably manifested in our need to have an explanation for every death which occurs, whereby each individual death must be “certified” by a doctor, and in terms of which a “cause of death” is required in each instance (Van Niekerk, 1999: 230). By continuously “rationalising” death in such a way, even if a person’s death comes about naturally due to old age, a cultural obsession arises in terms of which we become preoccupied with the objective of doing everything possible to postpone our own death. An effect hereof is that within our own thoughts, and within the general realm of conversation amongst people, we fail to ever truly address the notion of death as something inherently natural, necessary and imminent. It is worth quoting Baumann directly in this regard, whereby he states that:

“The big carcass of mortality has been sliced from head to tail into thin rashers of fearful, yet curable (or potentially curable) afflictions; they can now fit neatly into every nook and cranny of life… Fighting death may stay meaningless, but fighting the causes of dying turns into the meaning of life. (Baumann, 1992: 140)”.

The decontextualizing of death in a modern setting is furthermore evident in everyday facets of our lives. For example, in the pre-modern ages, the dead were buried closer to their circumstantial contexts, namely in churchyards or cemeteries within their community settings, which had the effect of reminding their remaining loved ones (and Sunday church-goers) “of their own inescapable fate” (Van Niekerk, 1999: 229). Death was thus in many respects “normalised” as a natural phenomenon, whereby today, the departed are predominantly buried in large-scale graveyards, often in removed settings, outside of cities, which are only visited occasionally by family members and relatives.

In further understanding this decontextualisation within a modern context, Palgi and Abromovitch (1998) comment on the “bureaucratization” of death, which has resulted as a logical consequence of people generally dying in hospitals, which leads to further im-personalization from the perspective of the bereaved. Despite the pragmatic benefits of such bureaucratization in the form of efficiency, when for example dealing with the disposal of the corpse and registration of death, such rationalised processes create a distinctly impersonal “thinness” when it comes to the grieving process of those left behind. Blauner (1966) furthermore notes that if we look at modern funeral ceremonies in terms of their private and rapid nature, the “classic” function of them, whereby the bereaved can cope through grief amongst relatives, is lost.

Ultimately, the significance of such decontextualisation and bureaucratization is that from the perspective of the grieving and bereaved, an understanding towards death exists which can be described as unhealthy and laden with adverse psychological implications. This is because death is not perceived as a natural phenomenon, but rather as something abnormal and aberrant. Furthermore, Blauner (1966) highlights the contradiction that the same society which so precisely controls the nature of a person’s death, “through medical bureaucracy and funeral parlours”, has made it significantly difficult to die in a dignified manner, from the perspective of the deceased. Blauner furthermore concludes that the “modern American (insert: Western) death”, which generally takes place in a hospital, and most often being that of a person considered to no longer be useful in a society, epitomises the “dying alone” symbolism that encapsulates existentialism, as well as “the essence of social inappropriateness” (Palgi & Abromovitch, 1998: 406).

5. Drivers of Decontextuality

In order to make sense of this ‘decontextualisation’ or sequestration of death from our day-to-day lives, the underlying assumptions of our ‘modern’ thought structures need to be understood, so as to accurately frame and understand this relatively new and ultimately unnerving approach towards death. Hereby, Walter (1991) points out two contradictory traditions that have shaped our modern understanding of bereavement. On the one hand, we have inherited a “Victorian romanticism” which portrays the loss of a loved one as being utterly and absolutely unbearable (Mellor & Shilling, 1993: 412). On the other hand, we are caught up within a realm of “twentieth-century denial", whereby death is in many respects hidden, as well as being forbidden, from our every-day contexts. Baumann (1992) has also pointed out these conflicting traditions in thought, and has identified their manifestation as the “ultimate failure of rationality”, whereby humans are unable to reconcile the “transcending power of the time-binding” mind, and the fleeting impermanence of its “time-bound flesh casing” (Mellor & Shilling, 1993:412).

In further understanding these “drivers of decontextuality”, the modern understanding of self-identity plays a large role in morphing our perspective toward death. Specifically, as argued by Giddens (1991), a person’s self-identity is nowadays created and reinforced through the perpetual “re-ordering of self-narratives”. In this regard, the movement towards “self-help” and “life guides”, compounded in a digital era of ‘Google’, has led to the idea of the ‘self’ no longer being a homogenous entity within a system of social norms and codes. Rather, a ‘sense of self’ is constructed in a modern context by means of reconstructed and reinforced personal narratives against the backdrop of a “seemingly hostile and threatening world” (Rose 1989).

Furthermore, in light of modern science, the significance of religious guidance in a quest for meaning has greatly dwindled, which additionally contributes to the “decontextualisation” of death from our lives. According to Mellor and Shilling (1993: 413), this is evident in the “extensive de-sacralisation of social life”, whereby religious certainties have become obsolete, but have not been replaces by any concrete, scientific certainties. Thus, in a ‘high-modern’ context, the quest for meaning itself has become privatised, leaving people to establish life-guiding principles and values for themselves, and furthermore leading to a greatly reduced “scope of the sacred” (Mellor and Shilling, 1993: 413).

Lastly, one of the major drivers of this decontextualisation is the modern attitude towards the body as a component of the self. In light of the dwindling relevance of religious frameworks that attributed ontological and existential value to a higher form of life, outside of the individual, more emphasis has been placed on the human body as a conveyor of value (Giddens, 1991). Crucially, due to the role of consumer culture in terms of which a healthy, young and sexual body is glorified, more importance has been placed on the body as a fundamental component of the self (Mellor & Shilling, 1993: 414). Thus, as the self and the body are prioritised within a modern context, it becomes increasingly difficult for people to come to terms with the realisation that the self and the body will eventually cease to exist.

6. Death and Modern Medical Technology

Not only has the stance towards death been affected by the mental models and thought paradigms that encapsulate modernity, but this stance has also been affected by one of the most important manifestations of modernity, namely the rapid advancement of science and technology within the context of the health industry. As argued by Gordon (2015:1), the “miracles” of modern medical science are in the process of replacing age-old traditions relating to how death is dealt with. Traditionally, within a “western” framework, a person’s death would stereotypically be followed by an assembly of relatives, the chanting of prayers and rituals. Such symbolic, religious practices form part of the grieving process for the bereaved, and also offer a dignified rite of passage to the dead person (Gordon, 2015: 1).

In taking an example from Judaism, rituals in Orthodox Judaism begin as a person’s death becomes imminent, whereby friends and family take part in farewell rites. During this phase, the dying person asks forgiveness for committed sins, and expresses wishes of wellbeing towards his or her survivors, following which goodbyes are offered by immediate family, and prayers of affirmation and hope are made (Gordon, 2015: 4). Similarly, in Catholicism, a person on their deathbed is offered last rites by a priest and is afforded the opportunity for final confessions, upon which absolution is granted. Within the framework of contemporary medical practice however, with specific regard to “salvage medications” and innovations such as pacemakers, respiratory support, antibiotics and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), many of these long-standing traditions and rituals have either become obsolete, or have been modified to a large degree (Gordon, 2015: 2). Crucially, it is not to say that such innovations are problematic or ‘bad’ in nature. Quite contrarily, such advancements have led to copious amounts of lives being saved and to the general improvement of people’s quality of life, as well as a universally increased average life span.

Nevertheless, such technologies have adversely affected our perception and understanding toward death, perhaps because our cultural views toward death have not been able to keep up with the rapid rate of technological change.

From the perspective of ethics, the language surrounding death in hospital settings has also become problematic, in that the way ethical questions relating to death are framed makes it difficult for families of dying patients to make decisions that encourage a dignified death, as opposed to a prolonged, dragged-out alternative. For example, a ‘substitute decision maker’, usually a spouse or child of a dying person, would be asked “What do you want us to do if your mother/father’s/spouse’s heart stops beating suddenly? Should we try to start it again through CPR or just let him/her die?”. Merely based on the grammatical formulation of such a sentence, the person making such a decision is placed within an ethical predicament, in that the sentence implies a genuine life-or-death decision between “almost (if not completely) futile CPR”, which is extremely painful and often leads to the breaking of already frail ribs, and the alternative option of a more comfortable, dignified death (Gordon, 2015: 5).

These days, a general presumption exists that “everything” which can be done, ought to be done in an effort to “save” a dying person in the name of modern medicine. This however has a severe impact on the concept of rituals in relation to death. In discourse surrounding the death of a deceased person, family members are comforted by the thought that all possible interventions were tried to prevent the process of dying, which has arguably itself become part of the “ritual narrative of dying” (Gordon, 2015:7). Bellemare (2014: 16) argues in this respect that in ceremonies surrounding death, “chants, candles and prayers” have been replaced by “beeps, flashing lights, screaming of medication orders, and the shocking of resuscitation paddles”. Because such interventions are often futile or marginally effective, especially in the case of the elderly and “natural” deaths, they can lead to an added layer of disappointment on top of the grief that the bereaved are already left to endure (Gordon, 2015: 5). Ultimately, within the context of the medical and health industry, death is fought tirelessly by doctors. When a death occurs however, it is perceived as a failure of medicine, as opposed to being naturally considered as a natural, normal phenomenon.

7. Conclusion

Thus, it is evident that the current, modernist stance towards death is an inherently unsustainable and arguably unhealthy one, in that it strongly decontextualizes death from our lives, placing it within dark, far-removed crevices of our everyday thoughts, mental models and conversations. In the age of modernity, especially within a ‘western’ context, the concept of death itself has been ‘broken down’ and deconstructed, in order for it to be a more bearable obstacle to overcome. To understand this distancing and decontextualisation, the underlying assumptions of the self and the body within a modern era have been outlined, which have severely compounded this issue, especially in conjunction with the dwindling scope of the ‘sacred’ in a humanist, secularised setting. Furthermore, due to the rapid rate of technological advancement and innovation within the medical sphere, the manifestation of such a ‘bureaucratised’ stance towards death is evident, in that rituals and rites surrounding death are arguably being replaced by the endless striving towards life-preservation in a hospital setting. Ultimately, it is put forward that the modern stance towards death is a psychologically concerning one, in that it negatively affects grieving processes of bereaved individuals on the one hand, whilst furthermore affecting the dignity of the dying on the other. In the case study (Part B) of this paper, it will thus be argued by means of an example (in an African setting) that alternative ways of perceiving death and understanding death may be more psychologically beneficial and generally dignifying to people, both within their own lives (and towards their own deaths) and in relation to the deaths of loved ones and those around them.

Reference list/ Bibliography

Aries, P. 1974. Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press

Bauman, Z. 1992. ‘Survival as a Social Construct’. Theory, Culture and Society, 9: 1-36.

Bellemare S. 2014. When medicine and culture intersect [Online] Available: [2017, April 23].

Blauner, R. 1966. Death and social structure. Psychology 29(1):378-94

Giddens, A.1991. Modernity and Self-Identity. Cambridge: Polity.

Giddens, A. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.

Gordon, M. 2015. Rituals in Death and Dying: Modern Medical Technologies Enter the Fray. Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal. 6 (1), 1-7.

Kuebler-Ross, E. 1993. On death and dying. New York, Collier Books.

Lifton, R. J. 1979. The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster

Mellor, P. Shilling, C. 1993. Modernity, Self-Identity and the Sequestration of Death. Sociology. 27(1): 211-230.

Palgi, P and Abromovitch, H. 1984. Death: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Annual Review of Anthropology, 13(1): 385-417.

Rose, N. 1989. Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self. London: Routledge.

Van Niekerk, A. 1999. Modernity, Mortality and Mystery. Philosophy Today, 13(1): 226-242.

Walter, T. 1991. Modern Death: Taboo or not Taboo?. Sociology, 25(1): 293-310.

Part B – Death in an African Context

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