From The Christian Art of Dying: Learning From Jesus
Philippe Aries began his classic study of death with the stories of the deaths of Roland and the Knights of the Round Table. (The Hour of Our Death) The stories, he said, displayed deaths that not only were typical of death in the early Middle Ages but also expressed traditions surrounding dying that were already centuries old. Death then was simple and public. “Tame death,” he called it. It was regarded as an evil, to be sure, but it could be rendered meaningful by the rituals that surrounded it and by the companions who attended it. The rituals and the community gave human meaning to death, rendered it something more and other than a crude fact of nature.
The rituals were simple enough. After acknowledging the imminence of death with a certain ambivalence, expressive at once of regret and resignation, the dying person said good-bye to his family and friends, forgiving them and asking forgiveness, blessing them and instructing them, and commending them to God’s care and protection. Having said farewells, the dying person would pray, confessing his sins and commending his soul to God.
These familiar rituals of death themselves testified to the importance of the community. Attended by family and friends, the dying person was the center of attention. Even strangers would sometimes fill the room, following the priest who brought the sacrament. Death was not a solitary event. Like life, it happened in community. And death happened not only in community but also to the community. It was a communal loss, and both grief and comfort were communal tasks. Together they held tight to their humanity in the face of the sad truths of suffering and death. Suffering and death were regarded as the common lot of humanity, the effect of sin, and they required solemn and communal recognition. Death was not “tame” because nature was benevolent, but because God was. With hope in God the dead could rest in peace, awaiting the resurrection of the dead, and the community could go on. [Aries points out that the image of “sleep” is typical of early medieval accounts of the state of the dead. He calls attention to the popularity of the story, “The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.” They were martyred during the reign of Decius (249-251 C.E.) and laid to rest in a sealed grotto. Two hundred years later, when a heresy began to circulate during the reign of Theodosius II denying the resurrection of the dead, God raised them up. A crowd gathered, of course, to see and to hear these martyrs raised from the dead. The message was that God had awakened them from their sleep to show his power to raise the dead. Then the Seven Sleepers laid on the ground and went back to sleep, to rest, and to wait for the general resurrection.]
A sudden or unexpected death was hard, of course, to “tame.” A sudden death was regarded as a bad death, as somehow a little shameful, as if the wrath of God had struck.
“Tame death” survived for centuries, and it still survives here and there. But Aries’s study also tells the story of challenges and changes to this way of dying. It would be challenged and modified first by the “scholarly cultures” of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when the contemptus mundi of medieval spirituality and the recovery of Platonic and Stoic philosophy sacrificed something of the ambivalence toward death that had characterized the “tame death.” It would face a different challenge in the early modern period, when extravagant hopes in scientific progress suggested human control over nature and relief from human mortality. In that early modern period, Aries said, “tame death” began to be “savage.” Death was regarded as a part of nature, but nature was regarded as what threatened human well-being. Nature brought plague and misery and death. The human response to death began to rely less on ritual and community and more on the promise of human mastery over nature, on the progress of science and technology. Romanticism would make an effort to revive a “tame death,” but its affection for “untamed nature” and its suspicion of the tradition’s claim that evil had a hold on nature and on human nature also profoundly modified it. “Death was no longer familiar and tame, as it had been in traditional societies, but neither was it absolutely wild. It had become something moving and beautiful like nature, like the immensity of nature, the sea or the moors.” By 1977, however, when Aries first published the original French version of The Hour of Our Death, the “tame death,” he said, had all but disappeared. In its place there was “denied death,” “excluded death,” “invisible death.” In its place was “wild death,” untamed by ritual or community. In its place was “medicalized death.”