By Dr David Lewis
Our attitude towards death changes from one era to another. For Victorians, dying was as much a part of life as living. Most died at home, rather than in hospital. In some cases, this meant sharing a room with the deceased for as long as a week.
Death also occurred more frequently and at a far younger age. The average lifespan of an upper-class male was 44 years, for a tradesman 25 and for a labourer just 22 years. Out of a hundred working-class children, over half had died before the age of five.
While life was shorter, the rituals surrounding death were formal and elaborate. Widows were expected to remain in full or deep mourning, which involved dressing in black crepe, for one to two years. Their accessories, such as caps, gloves, jewellery, umbrellas, handkerchiefs and even their underwear, had to be black. Men were allowed to get away with black gloves or black hatbands. Even children had to adopt some form of mourning attire.
Funeral directors became increasingly in demand as, for the wealthy, the burial ritual had become so complex as to require professional management. Hearses might be drawn by matching black horses replete with black ostrich feathers and decked with flowers.
Change in attitudes
By Edwardian times, however, death had become a taboo subject. Certainly not something one talked about in polite society. Nor, did most people ever need to see the dead as loved one’s were more likely to have died in hospitals than their own homes. Dealing with the corpse had become restricted to doctors, nurses, emergency workers and funeral directors.
As The Safe Hands recent survey shows, public opinion seems to be changing once again. The Covid-19 pandemic has made millions more familiar with and far more willing to openly talk about death and dying. Psychologically this may be to the good since form of repression tends to undermine one’s well-being while encouraging ignorance and needless anxieties.
Being able to talk to others easily about these subjects can often lighten the burden for many and make them feel part of a wider and more caring community. Death may not have lost its sting but it seems to be heading that way.
Silence is not golden
That old saying, ‘silence is golden’ does not apply when it comes to not talking openly and comfortably about death.
One of the reasons why so many prefer to avoid the subject, and surveys suggest almost eight out of ten people do, is they fear that by talking about death they are more likely to bring it about!
In reality such frank conversations can remove much of the fear surrounding the topic. A great deal of that fear stems from ignorance and misinformation.
Another bonus is that the acceptance of death helps you stop worrying about the petty concerns and distractions that so often negatively impact on our lives. One quickly comes to realise nothing matters very much and most things don’t matter at all.
Acknowledging one’s own mortality makes one better appreciate every moment of being alive. It focuses the mind more clearly what is truly important what you really want to do and the people you truly want to spend your time with.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, such conversations help people come to terms with bereavement. One of the most disabling and emotionally restricting of all our feelings it can so swiftly and easily lead to depression and a sense of hopelessness,
By breaking free from the taboos surrounding death and dying we can make life and living even more enjoyable.