By Mubarak Ali
July 7, 2018
Although everybody knows that death is
inevitable, nobody is ready to recognise this fact and continue to desire to
live for as long as possible. The epic literature of the past comprised many
stories wherein rulers and aristocrats indulged in searches for miraculous,
potent medicines to escape death and live an eternal life.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh – a king during
the Sumerian period – when Gilgamesh comes to know about the death of his
friend, he wanders from place to place in order to get the elixir to avoid the
tragedy of death. However, after having met a number of sages he reaches the
conclusion that death is unavoidable and the only way to be remembered is to do
welfare work for the people and leave a rich heritage behind.
To understand how people perceived death in
different historical time periods, and how they wanted to be recognised after
their deaths, historians are now exploring the concept of death with the help
of epitaphs, dramas, novels, poems, paintings and sculptures. For example, the
famous Greek dramatist Aeschylus preferred to be known as a ‘general’ rather than
a dramatist. His wish was inscribed on his epitaph.
Historians of the Annales school of France
turned their attention to social and cultural topics which had been regarded as
being beyond history by traditional historians. By introducing topics that concerned
human mentality and sensibility, these historians not only widened the scope of
history writing but also infused fresh energy and vitality into the subjects of
Historian Philippe Aries, who belonged to
the Annales School, published his first book titled ‘Centuries of childhood’.
In his second book, ‘The hour of our death’, he has viewed the changes in the
images of death in Europe from the medieval period to the present. When he
studied the tombs of the crusaders who died in the battlefield while fighting
against Muslims for the restoration of their holy places, he found that the
epitaphs on the knights’ graves carried praises about the bravery and sincerity
with which they sacrificed their lives for their beliefs. In some cases,
portraits of knights in their military uniforms were carved in their graves.
Those who died fighting for their faith have achieved the status of immortals
When Aries studied the tombs of the 13th
and 14th centuries, he found different notions of death. It is the period when
nearly the whole of Europe was engulfed by the plague – millions of people died
in the pestilence. The event is known as the Black Death in European history.
The clerics interpreted the disaster as the result of peoples’ sin and their deaths
as punishment from God. The bodies in the portraits were represented as being
consumed by insects, leaving skeletons behind. Therefore, those who died in the
plague were depicted as people who were punished for their sins.
When in the 15th and 16th centuries a new
class of traders and merchants emerged and had its mausoleums built, they
donated a portion of their wealth to religious services. During this period,
the church propagated the image of purgatory, that after death a person neither
goes directly to hell nor to paradise, but their soul stays in purgatory till
their family members perform religious rituals and pay donations to the church
for the salvation of their souls. The Catholic Church took full advantage of
this belief and sold indulgences in large numbers to the people, advising them
to have the souls of their relatives relieved.
Aries again turned his attention towards
the perceptions of death in the latter periods. After studying the Reformation
movement, he found that the Protestant sect did not have any concept of a
purgatory for the deliverance of their relatives’ souls. When the author
further analysed the wills and testaments of the rich people, he found that in
the 14th century they donated a part of their wealth to religious causes but
later began donating large sums to secular institutions such as hospitals,
schools and orphanages. At this stage, the perception of death had changed from
religious to secular.
The historian also pointed out that in the
medieval period graveyards were attached to churches and people used to hold
festivals in them. Aries also showed society’s changing social relationships.
There was a time when families were closely knit and celebrate their happiness
and sorrows together. Based on paintings and pictures, he pointed out that when
an old member of the family was nearing death, all assembled around his bed and
he breathed his last among his/her family members.
In the modern period, a person died
surrounded by machines, doctors and nurses instead of his/her family. Moreover,
in some cases, as per the will of the dead person, the body was cremated,
resulting in no way to establish family connections.
Publically eulogising those who died in
battlefields was also a tradition; war monuments were constructed to remember
the crucial time that the country went through. The objective of these
memorials is to inspire people to lay down their lives for the defence of the
nation and the country.
Aries’ study looked at how society’s
changing concepts of death affected their views about life and death. However,
it is difficult to judge that whatever happened in the past was good and that
whatever is going on in the present is not appropriate for us.
Mubarak Ali is a veteran historian and scholar.