The Sequestration of Death
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
According to Giddens (1991), death is routinely hidden from view.
Critically support or refute this comment.
Giddens assertion that ‘death is routinely hidden from view’ (2005: 161) will be argued in this essay as a largely correct analyse. Death is no longer part of society in the sense that we are not confronted with it on a normative plane, or in a societal sphere. We have passed the experience of dealing with death over to professionals and the bureaucratic institutions they belong to. The actual moment of death, the pronouncement of death, the public invigilation of it and the acceptance of it have taken on the form of a rational experience that takes away the brutish reality of death away from us.
The rationalisation of our social experiences are formed to keep our ‘ontological security’ intact in order for us to be able to maintain our ‘practical consciousness’ (2004). Giddens argues that there are mechanisms that are used by agents to maintain ontological security, for example trust, and that they are the foundation of our ontological, individual trust in being. Practical consciousness is the level of consciousness that enables us to maintain our ontological security and get along in societal situations. Whilst this can be argued to be a narrow and conservative view of consciousness (Grourke: 2004) it is nevertheless important for understanding how Giddens sees death as becoming ‘sequestered’ (1991: 161).
In order to maintain our ontological security and perform on a level of practical consciousness we, as individuals and societies, must confront the issue of death. Death creates fear in all societies and all societies must find ways of dealing with its inevitability (Mellor: 1993). Mellor (1993) explains that all societies, to a certain extent, must deny death in order for society to continue, but at the same time must recognise it and deal with it so our ontological security remains intact and we can continue living without death constantly hanging over us. Mellor (1993) continues by explaining how Giddens (1991) terms ‘high’ or ‘late’ modernity as a time period in which society has become increasingly distant from death; we have privatised the way we organise the social response to it.
The way we cope with death is by hiding it from view within institutions that are within our control, institutions and frames of reference that we can comprehend. Giddens (1991) gives the example of the modern hospital and the fact that its emergence coincided with the professionalisation of medicine. He argues that the hospital hides the dead away from us. Relatives have no real say over how the inevitability of death is confronted; it is the medical professionals and other bureaucratic organisations such as the police, pathologists, undertakers, etc, that deal with death and it is they who determine when a death is said to occur, when and where the corpse will be buried, etc (Aries: 1987). Giddens says that ‘all types of event leading up to and involved with the process of dying can be so incorporated’ (1991: 162), and by this he means that we cannot control death, ‘the great intrinsic factor of human existence’ but we can control all societal mechanisms and processes leading up to it (1991: 162).
High modernity however as brought into view this sequestration of death and made us question it. Is it good to hidden death in the ways we will outline? ‘Modernity’ is defined by Walter (1996) as societies triumph over nature by ‘techniques of science, capital accumulation and investment, the users of these techniques being imbued with the values of rationality, work and thrift’ (1996: 86). This is a time that put faith in people’s abilities to conquer the world and bring it under their control by means of rational, bureaucratic institutions. This included death, or at least the events leading up to an individuals passing. High modernity, as conceived by Giddens (1991), is a time where our faith in these institutions is becoming less and less. We question the institutions that make up our lives as we see that they are not perfect and not always for our benefit. High modernity, through the increase in media worldwide, has created a ‘single framework of experience’ (1991: 5) yet also shows us a magnified view of our differences.
Giddens was not the first to argue that death has become hidden from the public. Aries (1987) tells us how the ‘tears of the bereaved have become comparable to the excretions of the diseased’ (1987: 580) a revealing point about how death has come to be seen as dirty and must therefore be hidden from view. Even the simple expression of grief that is crying is seen as inappropriate, too visual a display of emotion for the happening of death. Aries (1987) says that it was in the nineteenth century the bourgeoisification of ritual and the suppression, through taboo, of mourning that death became hidden. Weeping became an expression ‘synonymous with hysteria’ and ‘mourning…is like a contagious disease’ (1987: 580) and even though the inhibition of public expressions of grieving are unhealthy for people death and grieving became morbid (Aries: 1987). Therefore, as Giddens (1991) and Mellor (1993) have outlined, death was a matter for professionals and grief was a private affair that was to be dealt behind close doors.
A crucial point we must explain is what is meant by the privatisation of death. The privatisation of death involves the taking way of death as a communally shared experience, an experience that, as Aries (1987) pointed out, is far removed from the traditions of pre-modern times. Society no longer confronts death as it once did, it no longer copes with death through public displays such as bodies or coffins being displayed outside people’s houses and notes put out on front doors (Aries: 1987). There are no longer any customs that amount to a community sharing in death and dealing with it together as a coherent group, a group that recognises death and helps each other to move on. Today there are only a small amount of signs, newspaper obituaries for example, that confirm to us that a death has occurred. Even then these are often only ‘extraordinary’ deaths and public or celebrity deaths that register beyond the immediate family of the deceased.
Walter, Littlewood & Pickering (1995) argue that it is through the media that death becomes visible to the public. The deaths of public figures and extraordinary deaths of private individuals constitute a dichotomy of death that the media visualise. This visualisation of death leads to an invigilation of its emotive resonance in the public arena: the media influence how we cope with death. This control over our emotive responses to death can said to ‘bring home’ the possibility of death and force us to identify with those who have suffered bereavement.
However, Walter, Littlewood & Pickering (1995) overemphasize the media’s ability to bring private deaths into the public sphere. What is clear that whilst they acknowledge the fact that reporting of death in the media of private individuals is usually associated with extraordinary deaths (such as major car accidents and murder) they fail to distinguish what the private individual’s conception of what an extraordinary death is.
Whilst the media ‘invigilate’ the monstrous or exceptional deaths of private persons and thus offer an example of how to cope with such deaths socially, there is no such device for coping with ‘ordinary’ deaths. What deaths are categorised as ‘extraordinary’ or ‘ordinary’ is decided by the media and what they deem to be ‘newsworthy’. What for an individual may seem an extraordinary death, say the death of a 35 year old through alcohol abuse or the death of an infant through cot-death, will not necessarily seem extraordinary to the media; ‘untimely’ perhaps, but not extraordinary. Whilst for the individuals who have known this person intimately this kind of death can seem both untimely and to a certain extent not ordinary. Whilst alcohol death is perhaps aggregated to a high level in modern society, this does not mean that death at such a young age is not an extraordinary event for the individuals closest to the person.
Here we can see that the media appears to monopolize the definitions of what an ‘extraordinary’ death may be. At an individual level the scope that an ‘extraordinary death’ may encompass is far larger than the media’s. So we can refute the claim that the media helps the private individual to cope with death. It is only through the media’s own definitions of what death is newsworthy that they give some kind of coping strategy: All other deaths remain private.
The media’s power to bring death into our homes through the internet and specifically websites that show deaths occurring has certainly increased. Pictures of Saddam Hussein’s execution, numerous executions of westerners by Islamic extremists and natural and man-made disasters (car crashes, sporting accidents, etc) are examples of actual scenes of death broadcast over the internet, images that are mostly banned from the television and newspapers. However it is possible to say that it is only through human curiosity that these scenes of death are displayed and not an overall change in societal behaviour or order. This curiosity, manifesting itself in the popularity of such websites, also points to a social need to try and understand death better, to take away some of the barriers that have arisen, such as the bureaucratic institutions that deal with death and the de-sensitised aura that surrounds it. We are not confronted with the visual spectacle of death and therefore crave for some kind of sign that it exists.
Parsons and Litz (1967) argue in Walter, Littlewood & Pickering (1995) that attitude towards death have been repositioned in modern societies, not hidden or sequestered. The modern acceptance of our mortality and rationalisation of when the death is likely to appear is not a denial of death but only an altering of where death is present in our daily lives. However Giddens (1991) shows that in high modernity the boundaries by which we rationalise society have indeed changed, but this has lead to people increasingly questioning all forms of order and societal bureaucracy and that we therefore no longer have an anchor on which to attach our morality, which in turn threatens our ontological security. This repositioning is achieved through the reflexive nature of questioning beliefs and societal practices; reflexivity is our internalisation of externally formed notions of order and self-identity.
Reflexivity in the context of high modernity reinforces the sequestration of death. As Mellor (1993) contests, our reflexive attitude to an increasing number of ways in which death can be dealt with only leads to a confusion about which one to choose. This increases our existential anxiety, breaking down the possibility of finding a communal outlet for our emotions at the time of death. Our individualised societies offer no framework in which we can express our grief. We hide death to repress our existential angst, making death a private affair, secularised and de-traditionalised. In pre-modern times church played a large part in helping the community to deal with their then communal lose but now it is largely the domain of the state and its medical institutions (Aries: 1987).
The medicalisation of death (Walter: 1996) and the retreat to the hospital began in the nineteenth century. With increased knowledge about sanitation, better water supplies and the resultant raising of life expectancy hospitals and other such institutions became the preferred choice of destination for the sick. This of course meant that more and more people died in hospital too. Walter (1996) describes how this lead to only the closest of relatives being able to access the dying; patients are hidden behind curtains, visitors are limited and the dead are hidden from view. Coupled with the ideas that Aries (1987) puts forward about death becoming taboo, this hiding of the dying broke down all communal links to the dead and, in a sense, put a protective shield around the living from their deceased. More distant relatives, friends, neighbours and the church were excluded from the social processes that surround death. As Walter (1996) outlines, doctors replaced priests as the decipherers of death: Increased medical knowledge supplanted the churches (and indeed many doctors) beliefs on why we die.
Searle (1995) claims that people are more afraid of dying alone at home than they are of dying in a hospital. Using the accounts of 149 relatives of people who have died alone to construct the argument that ‘speakers are actively concerned to sustain an ideal of a caring community, seeking to locate people who die within its embrace’, (1995: 1) Searle appears to refute the claim made by Giddens that death is hidden in society. However, as we have outlined above, death is still hidden from us. Although people may wish to die in the embrace of the community and remain ontologically secure through this embrace, it is no longer the case that there is anything like this kind of supportive social network. Searle notes that people wish to resurrect the more traditional forms of dealing with death in order to help deal with the ramifications of death and its threat to the continuing order of social life. This hope may well exist, and perhaps it is a direct reaction to the sadness felt with the realisation that a relative has died with no such support. However this hope does not in-itself create the wished for communal death. Perhaps the people that die alone are not sequestered by a hospital or nursing home, but they are certainly sequestered in the sense that the prelude to their deaths was away from any kind of community that would have once been there to care for them.
We can conclude that death today is very much still hidden from us in every day social interactions. It is found in social institutions that are designed to limit our contact with death. We are shown the deaths of celebrities and the extraordinary deaths that happen upon otherwise normal individuals, and also shown how to cope with this through media invigilation. However, despite the increase in media and the resultant increased attacks on our ontological security, we are denied the confrontation with death that once part of our traditions.
Aries, P. (1987) The Hour of our Death, Great Britain: Cox & Wyman (first published 1977)
Clark, D. (1993) ‘eds’ The Sociology of Death, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
Giddens, A. (2005) Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge: Polity Press (first published 1991)
Giddens, A. (2004) The Constitution of Society, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd (first published 1984)
Grourke, S. (2004) Autonomy and Tradition, Critical Review of International and Political Philosophy
Mellor, A. (1993) ‘Modernity, Self-Identity and the Sequestration of Death’, Sociology, Vol. 27, No. 3, 411-431
Searle, C (1995) ‘Dying Alone’, Sociology of Health & Illness Volume 17 Issue 3 Page 376 - June 1995
Walter, T., Littlewood, J. and M. Pickering (1995) Death. Dying and Bereavement, London: Sage
Walter, T. (1996) The Eclipse of Eternity: A Sociology of the Afterlife, London: MacMillan Press Ltd