Approaches to Death

April 21, 1971

Report Outline
Society's Awakening Interest in Death
Changed Ways of Coping with Death
Ethical Problems and Man's Anxiety

Society's Awakening Interest in Death

Disappearance of Taboos on Discussion of Death

In this outspoken age, no aspect of human life seems barred from flagrant public exposure. Yet one subject of profound interest to every man—death—has remained in the shadows, shunted away from popular discourse, ignored until recently by social research. Modern man has tended to avoid pondering his ultimate fate. Only in its formal aspects has death come forward for public consideration, as in the rites for a departed public figure or in abstract terms such as casualty statistics.

Death is omnipresent—more than 5,000 Americans die every day—and death by violence is commonplace in the news and in popular entertainment. But the actual experience of dying and the experience of bereavement are private matters. There is little sharing of them, for the dying are hustled out of sight into institutions and the bereaved are expected to hold public expression of grief in check, then to put their grieving quickly behind them.

Everyone owes God a death, as Shakespeare put it, but “why dwell on it until you have to?” appears to be the prevailing view. Good form requires that the curtain be drawn on the dying, the dead, and the bereaved to shield the rest of the community from these reminders of man's mortality. “Our society views dying as being in questionable taste,” a man who knew he had a mortal illness wrote shortly before his death. Even doctors and clergymen, whose professions have the most intimate and continuing concern with death and dying, have tended to avoid discussing the subject beyond what is required for carrying out their duties.

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