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Some insights on the decline of death awareness over the last century

Before there were coroners and funeral directors, it was normal for families and communities to take care of the deceased. People died at home, usually in their living rooms or in their beds. The act of dying at home was important, as it passed on important experiences for the living. People saw others dying and thus they increased their death awareness. Death was a common thing to witness/be a part of and spoken about in normal conversations.

A century ago (and more), death was a public event with the deathbed acting as one of the central features of community life. "People basically saw a death as a social gathering in which the person dying was supported by the community, and the community basically got some type of closure from the dying person," says Dr. JoQuim Madrenas, professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Medicine at the University of Western Ontario.

In the 19th century, global life expectancy was around 30 years. Death was common to take place after infections due to lack of antibiotics, childbirth, accidents, and in wars or other types of violence. In the 1920’s, for example, 10 per cent of infants died before their first birthday. Death doulas were very normalized back in this era. It was (and now still is) a skill to take care of someone who is dying. During this time frame, this skill was handed down from generation to generation.

“With modern medical advances death, stops being a social event. It becomes a very private event between you and your doctor, maybe your immediate family and group of friends. People die more and more alone." according to Dr. JoQuim Madrenas. “But with better care, came an unintended consequence: dying stopped being a part of life.” says Dr. JoQuim Madrenas. Today, most of us are dying in hospitals, not at home. "Death, which had been common and familiar, became unfamiliar, remote, invisible and expected only in old age." says Madrenas.

Today, how we die looks much different. A century of medical breakthroughs, better public sanitation, the advent of vaccines, antibiotics, hygiene, public health advances, innovations in health care which prolong lives, and health care facilities has led to, "more and more people are dying at very old ages and/or at very advanced states of chronic illness", says Donna Wilson, a professor of nursing at the University of Alberta, and co-author of the book Dying and Death in Canada.

Now, general life expectancy is 70 or over (depending on the country you live in and other factors). People are living longer and have become less comfortable with death. People in essence have forgotten what it is like to be around someone who is dying and even worse, the “Dreaded D Words”- death, dying, dead are rarely used in everyday conversation.

Have you read recent obituaries? Not only can’t people talk about someone dying, but they also can’t put it in print. People don’t “die”- they pass away, they go and meet their maker, they are no longer with us, they are finally at rest, they are with Jesus/ their wife/husband, they are at peace, they succumbed to their illness, the “late”, …. There are so many euphemisms for these three D Words.

Death doulas are only part of the solution to reawaken death awareness in society. If you are ready to take the first step, please contact me.

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