Some grave reflections on our final adventure

A Social History of Dying
June 8, 2007

Tony Walter traces shifting ideas of mortality from Stone Age ritual to deskilled bereavement

How have humans dealt with their own mortality? The conventional scholarly answers point to religion, or to historical development from the Middle Ages to modernity, or they employ psychoanalysis. This ambitious book challenges these conventional answers.

Although idiosyncratic religious beliefs and rituals surrounding death abound, Allan Kellehear argues in A Social History of Dying that "remarkably, intriguingly, much of our personal behaviour before death exhibits itself in only a handful of simple styles". Four, to be precise.

For Stone Age hunter-gatherers, death came swiftly and often unpredictably through accident, animal predation or childbirth; then followed a risky journey to the otherworld, aided by the gifts that survivors left the deceased, often in the grave. For hunter-gatherers, dying occurred after death - so the living gave gifts to the dead, not the other way around as today.

Once we started domesticating crops and animals, we began to live longer and to die of infectious diseases caught from the cows and chickens with which we lived (bird flu being just the latest). So we died more predictable deaths, and the journey to the otherworld could begin before death. Spiritual preparation, along with the willing of possessions, became the hallmark of good peasant dying.

With urbanism came specialists (including priests and doctors) who deskilled the middle-class person in areas where she or he was not a specialist. The well-managed death became normative, cancer becoming the paradigmatic fatal disease that modern palliative care now manages, if you are lucky.

Today many more will have a stigmatised death, enjoying little autonomy, power or status. In rich countries, many die demented, frail, lonely and abandoned in nursing homes; in poor countries, many die of Aids. "Dying - now far, far away from its otherworld origins - has become a set of this-world trials and tests." Today's challenge is to tame these new, shameful deaths.

So how does Kellehear's social history challenge established wisdoms? First, he takes on Philippe Ari s, who traces ideas about death back just a thousand years, as though early medievals died as humans had always done. Kellehear shows that the building blocks of the human response to death were shaped much, much earlier, in our animal ancestry and in the Stone Age. And, as a good materialist, he shows how ideas are rooted in economics.

Second, Kellehear takes on modernity theorists. It is not modernity, but urbanism, that underlies our historic and current difficulties with dying.

The anxiety, the specialism and the deskilling that characterise contemporary dying can be found in cities more than two millennia ago.

Third, he reminds us that classic anthropological and archaeological interpretations have overdosed on the latent functions of mortuary rites and grave goods; helping the living adjust, displaying status. But their manifest function is to assist the dead on their journey. Taking Stone Age people seriously is the basis of Kellehear's social history. Enter here the psychoanalysts, such as Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death . Their secularism prevents them taking religion seriously, so they explain rites in terms of the unconscious. Kellehear disarmingly argues that to understand the evolution and history of dying, or indeed of anything, you need to start not with 20th-century theory but with the Stone Age, where we all began.

Finally, he challenges modern palliative care. Can its principles of autonomy and open communication work for those dying of First World dementia or Third World Aids, characterised by stigma, abandonment and collapsed family structures?

In such an ambitious book, of course one can find fault. Most evidence about grave goods comes not from hunter-gatherers but from agriculturalists who, according to Kellehear, should have begun to leave such practices behind. Ari s does not, as Kellehear claims, say that death was pretty much tamed until the early 20th century. Kellehear uncritically accepts a global secularisation thesis. And if farming and cities move dying to this side of death, why does modern Japan pay more attention to the soul's post-mortem journey than to dying?

This is no ordinary book. The next generation of death scholars will have to come to terms with it. And it is superb in showing how sociology can illuminate the findings of archaeology and history.

Tony Walter is professor of death studies and director of studies, MSc death and society, at Bath University.

A Social History of Dying

Author - Allan Kellehear
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 310
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 978 0521694292

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