When death was a common thing to witness over 100 years ago, it was thus somewhat normalized.
A lot has changed in the past 150 years including our funeral traditions, and the way we die. Life 150 years ago was a lot more dangerous. Many people died from an infectious disease regardless of their age. Deaths occurred at home, not outside of it. "Disease was part of life", says Shelley McKellar, an associate professor of the History of Medicine and Disease at the University of Western Ontario. "It was ubiquitous. In the time before antibiotics and mass immunizations, disease was also a death sentence.” (See source 1).
Continuing along this vein, throughout a person’s life, during this time, there was a good chance that you would be there when someone died. There was a fear of death, but no denial that it would come for everyone, eventually. Global life expectancy in the 19th century was around thirty years, according to Dr. Blair Bingham’s book, Death Interrupted. (See source 5)
“Causes of death have also changed dramatically since 1867. Deaths from infectious diseases have declined, while those from chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular diseases, account for 37% of all deaths. About 28% of deaths are caused by neoplasms (cancer), and about 1 in 10 is caused by accident, poisoning or violence. Pneumonia used to be called "the old man's friend" because it brought a swift and relatively painless death to the elderly, but today it accounts for only 3.5% of deaths.” (See source 2).
Dr. Blair Bingham quotes in their book that by the year 2000 global life expectancy was nearly 70. (See source 5) In 2012, in Canada, Dr Kortes-Miller cites that the average age at death was 81. (See source 4, page 17)
A century ago, 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. (See source 1)
As Dr. Kathy Kortes- Miller confirms in her book the fact that people in the past were exposed to enough dying and death meant that they recognized when people were seriously ill and thus were well acquainted with death. It became a frequent occurrence in their lives. “…the dying were primarily cared for by their families and communities…. (who) provided care, including a place to rest, shelter from the elements, cold compresses and nurturing food…. Spiritual intercession such as prayer, song and support from religious representatives played a major role.” (See source 4)
Death doulas were quite the normal practice. Their skills were naturally passed down from generation to generation. People usually died in their homes. Friends and family prepared the body for burial. It was laid out in the best room of the house so that people could pay their respects. Children learned early that this is what death looked like.
Furthering that thought is Stephen Berry, author of The Historian as Death Investigator as well as Counting the Dead. In conversation with Dr. Blair Bingham, he stated that “two hundred years ago, when nearly everyone died in the living room or their bed, they fulfilled the most important role of their lives: they showed other people how to die…. When death was a common thing to witness, it was thus somewhat normalized.” (See source 5)
The 1950’s and 1960’s brought critical advances in resuscitation technology. Vaccines and antibiotics were further innovations. Public health education, clean water, and specific training around infectious diseases became the norm as part of new doctor training, and hygiene advanced also.
Jump ahead to the present era and we have a new dilemma on our hands. People are living longer, and we are capable of prolonging life artificially. People are not only living longer, but they expect to live longer too. There is almost a paradigm shift from dying being anticipated and a familiar part of living to something expected only in very old age. As Dr Blair Bingham confirms, “It was the perfect recipe for creating a world where people, and their doctors, would forget how to die.” (See source 4)
It is important to remember that death is and always has been a social process. “Sociologically death is a process, not just an event. People who expect to die soon face a reality quite different from the one experienced by those of us who expect to be alive years from now. Their impending death powerfully affects their thinking and behavior.” (See source 7)
In conclusion, I leave you to ponder this quoted from Dr. Sherwin Nuland who states that “death belongs to the dying and to those who love them.” As a death doula, it is never too late to improve your own death literacy.
Source 1 https://www.cbc.ca/A brief history of death and dying/Social Sharing/Ed von Aderkas with Meredith Levine special to CBC News, Posted: May 17, 2011| Last Updated: May 17, 2011
Source 2: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/Death and Dying, by Victor W. Marshall, January 13, 2015
Source 3: https://web.frazerconsultants.com/How We Died 100 Years Ago Vs. How We Die Today, by Frazer Consultants | Sep 8, 2017
Source 4: Talking About Death Won’t Kill You, by Dr. Kathy Kortes-Miller
Source 5: Death Interrupted, by Dr. Blair Bingham
Source 6: How We Die, by Dr. Sherwin Nuland
Source 7: https://www.sociologyguide.com/