By Mubarak Ali
July 7, 2018
Although everybody knows that death is inevitable, nobody is ready to recognise this fact and continue to desire to live for as long as possible. The epic literature of the past comprised many stories wherein rulers and aristocrats indulged in searches for miraculous, potent medicines to escape death and live an eternal life.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh – a king during the Sumerian period – when Gilgamesh comes to know about the death of his friend, he wanders from place to place in order to get the elixir to avoid the tragedy of death. However, after having met a number of sages he reaches the conclusion that death is unavoidable and the only way to be remembered is to do welfare work for the people and leave a rich heritage behind.
To understand how people perceived death in different historical time periods, and how they wanted to be recognised after their deaths, historians are now exploring the concept of death with the help of epitaphs, dramas, novels, poems, paintings and sculptures. For example, the famous Greek dramatist Aeschylus preferred to be known as a ‘general’ rather than a dramatist. His wish was inscribed on his epitaph.
Historians of the Annales school of France turned their attention to social and cultural topics which had been regarded as being beyond history by traditional historians. By introducing topics that concerned human mentality and sensibility, these historians not only widened the scope of history writing but also infused fresh energy and vitality into the subjects of history.
Historian Philippe Aries, who belonged to the Annales School, published his first book titled ‘Centuries of childhood’. In his second book, ‘The hour of our death’, he has viewed the changes in the images of death in Europe from the medieval period to the present. When he studied the tombs of the crusaders who died in the battlefield while fighting against Muslims for the restoration of their holy places, he found that the epitaphs on the knights’ graves carried praises about the bravery and sincerity with which they sacrificed their lives for their beliefs. In some cases, portraits of knights in their military uniforms were carved in their graves. Those who died fighting for their faith have achieved the status of immortals in history.
When Aries studied the tombs of the 13th and 14th centuries, he found different notions of death. It is the period when nearly the whole of Europe was engulfed by the plague – millions of people died in the pestilence. The event is known as the Black Death in European history. The clerics interpreted the disaster as the result of peoples’ sin and their deaths as punishment from God. The bodies in the portraits were represented as being consumed by insects, leaving skeletons behind. Therefore, those who died in the plague were depicted as people who were punished for their sins.
When in the 15th and 16th centuries a new class of traders and merchants emerged and had its mausoleums built, they donated a portion of their wealth to religious services. During this period, the church propagated the image of purgatory, that after death a person neither goes directly to hell nor to paradise, but their soul stays in purgatory till their family members perform religious rituals and pay donations to the church for the salvation of their souls. The Catholic Church took full advantage of this belief and sold indulgences in large numbers to the people, advising them to have the souls of their relatives relieved.
Aries again turned his attention towards the perceptions of death in the latter periods. After studying the Reformation movement, he found that the Protestant sect did not have any concept of a purgatory for the deliverance of their relatives’ souls. When the author further analysed the wills and testaments of the rich people, he found that in the 14th century they donated a part of their wealth to religious causes but later began donating large sums to secular institutions such as hospitals, schools and orphanages. At this stage, the perception of death had changed from religious to secular.
The historian also pointed out that in the medieval period graveyards were attached to churches and people used to hold festivals in them. Aries also showed society’s changing social relationships. There was a time when families were closely knit and celebrate their happiness and sorrows together. Based on paintings and pictures, he pointed out that when an old member of the family was nearing death, all assembled around his bed and he breathed his last among his/her family members.
In the modern period, a person died surrounded by machines, doctors and nurses instead of his/her family. Moreover, in some cases, as per the will of the dead person, the body was cremated, resulting in no way to establish family connections.
Publically eulogising those who died in battlefields was also a tradition; war monuments were constructed to remember the crucial time that the country went through. The objective of these memorials is to inspire people to lay down their lives for the defence of the nation and the country.
Aries’ study looked at how society’s changing concepts of death affected their views about life and death. However, it is difficult to judge that whatever happened in the past was good and that whatever is going on in the present is not appropriate for us.
Mubarak Ali is a veteran historian and scholar.