The new (un)reality of death: Reflections on death awareness and the ‘Corona Crisis’

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis




by Michael Hviid Jacobsen

Almost overnight, death – after being absent for such a long time – re-entered the collective consciousness of contemporary society. Death, the constant doppelganger of life that we had been successful in keeping at arm’s length for so long, suddenly kicked in the door and made itself something to be talked about, acted upon, dealt with. This time, death (or at least the prospect of and potential for it) presents itself as the ‘Corona virus’, which within a few months has become a worldwide problem and transformed the way we live. Throughout modern history, we have at intervals encountered other scenarios and events suddenly making death a problem to be confronted: World Wars with their millions of human casualties, The Spanish Flu (in 1918), the assassination of JFK, the tsunami in 2006, the terrorist attack on 9/11and now a global viral scare called the ‘Corona Crisis’. Death indeed has many different faces.

Doubtlessly, the current Corona Crisis is about a very dangerous and complex virus, it is about global chains of contagion, healthcare professionals, treatments, vaccines and precautionary measures.  It is also about politics and financial issues, about rising unemployment rates, lockdowns, plummeting stock markets and altered everyday routines. But in the end and at its core, the Corona Crisis is about death – our deep-seated fear of death. It is only because the Corona virus is potentially deadly – having by the time of writing these lines killed more than 350,000 people worldwide – that we have are struck by panic and insecurity. It is also because the enemy – a viral disease – is invisible and spreads quietly and easily between people that we are worried and find ourselves so utterly unprepared for the prospect of disease and death. Avoiding mass death has suddenly become the most acute concern on the political agenda, pushing aside worries about climate challenges, budget deficits, international terrorism, refugee and immigration problems and other now seemingly more trivial and secondary matters. Death (in the guise of the Corona Crisis) has become the hottest topic of our time.

Despite the fact that the Corona Crisis deep down, beneath all the political, economic and healthcare turmoil, is about death – or rather about our fear of it – the interesting thing is that so far we have hardly seen death at all throughout the duration of the current crisis. Death is there alright, but it is wrapped in medicalised jargon and the event itself plays out behind closed curtains. True, we see Italian military convoys removing coffins containing the Corona victims in the dead of night, we observe coffins lined up in Spanish and French churches preparing for mass funeral services, and we witness how specialised personnel bury numerous coffins in anonymous mass graves on an island off the coast of New York City. But death in itself, death as it feels, looks, smells and sounds like when someone is dying, in pain, agony and despair, death as it afflicts the human body or grief as experienced by those left behind is nowhere to be seen. For all practical intents and purposes, Corona death is invisible. Just as Jean Baudrillard (1991/1995) once suggested that the Gulf War did not take place, partly because we in the Western world only witnessed the actual war actions and atrocities from afar on the television screen in the shape of images of bombs dropped from high altitudes and hitting their anonymous targets or through statistics of casualties, tactical charts of troop movements and television expert commentaries, so we might also provocatively claim that the Corona Crisis and its deaths do not really happen. In a roundabout way, death is there, but it is not visible besides in the daily charts and tables showing the numbers of infected and dead people nation by nation or in the technical commentaries made at press conferences by healthcare bureaucrats. In this way, death is transformed into a spectacle of television news and technical/medical commentary.


In spite of our many mind-boggling individual differences and grossly incomparable life courses and lifestyles, every member of human society is ultimately destined to die, and this commonality in mortality is what unites us all. American sociologist Peter L. Berger once characterized society in the last resort as ‘men banded together in the face of death’ (Berger 1969:51). This apt characterization can be understood in at least two often interconnected ways. First, the more existential view (owing to the ideas of German existential philosopher Martin Heidegger’s idea of ‘being towards death’) that we are all destined to die and that we are – no matter whatever we do – in the end food for worms. Second, the more practical view that we must understand societies and cultures are contraptions intended to keep the gnawing knowledge and ugly reality of death at bay, thus allowing us to live as if death is not really there. This has been perhaps the most acute challenge throughout the history of humanity.

Previously in human history, the most prevalent interpretative schemes for understanding death were metaphysical or religious, not scientific. It was religion and a god-fearing life that provided strength, comfort and meaning when confronted with the inevitable. Actually, Berger also remarked how ‘the power of religion depends, in the last resort, upon the credibility of the banners it puts in the hands of men as they stand before death, or more accurately, as they walk, inevitably, toward it’ (Berger 1969 p. 52). Religion has thus always provided a haven of meaning when faced with existential meaningless such as life-threatening disease and death, and this was particularly the case in traditional societies before the impact of modern science and secularization. To our ancestors, death was quite a common sight – something that was expected and publicly visible. Death was a public event, played out in public, and children were neither spared the knowledge of nor the experience of seeing it. Death was everywhere in prehistoric societies, an everyday event that could not be hidden from sight. One was expected to participate in death, witness it and follow the etiquettes and rituals prescribing pre-death and post-death behaviour. The mourners from the local community would come to visit the dying person on the death-bed and death was a familiar occurrence to all generations. In traditional society, death mostly took place in the dying person’s home, and there was not a room in a house that had not witnessed a death (Benjamin 1936/1969 p. 93-94). Death was also in most cases unavoidable and unpostponable as medicines and treatments were either lacking or in themselves proved deadly. When war, everyday violence, famine or disease struck, death was often violent, imminent and painful. This was the situation throughout most parts of human history.

But by the coming of the 20th century, with what is often described as ‘modern society’, death increasingly began to be removed from public sight and public life, and the same happened to mourning that increasingly became something to be kept behind closed doors and rolled down curtains. A common thread runs through much of the so-called ‘death studies’ research on the history of death claiming that the 20th century was in many ways characterized by death taboo and death denial (see, e.g., Ariès 1974; Bauman 1992; Becker 1973/1997; Illich 1976). During this time, death was shunned, the dying and the mourning were sequestrated from social life and in general death was a no-go topic. According to Philippe Ariès (1974), that French doyen of historical death-attitudes from the Middle Ages to the late 20th century, death in modern society should be called ‘Forbidden Death’, because there was an effective interdict and taboo on death making it an inappropriate and suppressed phenomenon. Whereas death in traditional medieval society had been public, shared and omnipresent, death was now privatised, something to be hidden from public sight, medicalised, institutionalised and professionalised. People began to be born in hospitals and were expected to die there again after a – compared to medieval times – extraordinarily extended average life expectancy. One outcome of this development was according to Ariès that our previous familiarity with and proximity to death was now substituted with alienation and estrangement to the extent that people increasingly believed themselves to be non-mortal (Ariès 1974 p. 106).

Here into the first decades of the 21st century, the notion of ‘Forbidden Death’ is perhaps no longer the most useful or accurate. The assumption of the modern taboo on death – if there ever really was one – is difficult to maintain in a world obsessed with everything death-related and in a world with mass media exposure to images and stories – actual and fictional – of death and dying. Through the screens of the television, mobile phone and cinema we wallow in murder stories, blood-dripping horror series, sci-fi mysteries and brutal real life death (just think of the recent videos of a dying George Floyd on the asphalt beneath a police officer’s knee going viral). Death has become entertainment, and the so-called ‘pornography of death’ mentioned by English anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (1955) in the mid-20th century is nowadays available 24/7 on all platforms. It seems as if the death taboo of the preceding century has successfully been dissolved into a carnivalesque celebration of death. Thus, several scholars have claimed that we now rather than ‘taboo’ experience a ‘revival’ of death that particularly pertains to the realms of entertainment, artistic expression and social practice (see, e.g., Walter 1994; Berridge 2002; Noys 2005; Khapaeva 2017). Following this, it has been suggested that we might perhaps describe the prevalent death-mentality of the new millennium with the notion of ‘Spectacular Death’ (Jacobsen 2016, 2020). This notion captures the complex interplay of a multitude of different trends and tendencies within our contemporary culture of death such as an extreme exposure to mediated/mediatized death on the one hand and an equally extreme squeamishness when it comes to real death, actual death and trivial death on the other. Compared to any generation before us in human history, we are almost totally unacquainted with and unprepared for real and mostly trivial death. The taboo is perhaps not gone, but co-exists alongside an unprecedented exposure to fictionalized, mediatized and commercialized death. Moreover, also within the realms of social practice and science does ‘Spectacular Death’ inaugurate a time of rediscovery and preoccupation with death, for example in the renewed concern with personalized funeral and mourning rituals, the rise of the palliative care movement and the growing interest in death within the social sciences and humanities. It is in this age of ‘Spectacular Death’ that we suddenly need to tackle the current Corona Crisis.


In the early months of World War I, Sigmund Freud was reflecting on the impact of such a war on the way in which death was experienced and how it would influence our modern increasingly death-alienated civilization (Freud 1915/1957). In his text ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’, Freud described how the Great War – with the number of human casualties far beyond his wildest imagination – inaugurated a new forced confrontation with death and how the previously applied repressive techniques for warding off the knowledge and presence of death became increasingly ineffective when confronted with mass death on such a scale. With the collapse of the Pax Britannica – which had ensured relative peace in Europe for more than a century – war, devastation and death were destined to follow. Modern man [sic] had thus become almost unacquainted with and unaccustomed to death as compared to his prehistoric ancestors. It was Freud’s contention that this new reality of mass death would make our ingrained subconscious sense of immortality untenable.

Today, the war that is being waged is not against other nations or ideologies, but rather against an invisible virus of global proportions, a virus that does not hide in the trenches or is killing its dehumanised victims in internment camps or by bombing them indiscriminately from high altitudes. It is a not an enemy that stops at borders or with which a ceasefire can be negotiated. This viral death is much more silent and potentially omnipresent. Even though the virus can be stopped from spreading, the precautionary measures applied to do so and make us safe in turn cause a radical alteration of our lives and habits and in themselves alert us to the ever-present potential for death. The deadly virus spreads from person to person, and contracting the disease (and with it the possibility of death) is now the result of not being careful or attentive enough. We only have ourselves to blame, and we thus have to refrain from close contacts with strangers, but also with friends and family. Death is now lurking behind any handshake, hug or kiss – or cough. Keeping distance, using hand sanitizers, face masks or other types of safety measure is the only way forward to securing survival. Meanwhile, the Corona virus and its potentially deadly consequences has monopolized the attention of the media, and news flashes and endless press conferences make sure that we are constantly kept informed and constantly stay alert. There is really nowhere to escape from the concern with the Corona virus.

There is no doubt that the sudden arrival of the Corona virus – not unlike the coming of the Great War Freud wrote about a century ago – has impacted the way we live our lives but also the way we, perhaps subconsciously, contemplate the reality and possibility of death. Back in the mid-1960s, the two American sociologists Barney G. Glaser and Anselm L. Strauss (1965) studied so-called ‘awareness contexts’ of death in hospital settings. By coining the notion of ‘awareness contexts’ they were pointing to the way in which the awareness of death – in speech, action and interaction – was being handled by terminal patients, their relatives and healthcare professionals. Their work was primarily concerned with the microsociological level, with what people did and said during sequences of interaction within the hospital. They discovered that the ‘closed awareness context’ was prevalent, which meant that the dying person was often kept unaware of imminent death and that death was surrounded by silence, denial and lies. No one dared speaking openly about death when someone was in fact dying. Opposed to the ‘closed awareness context’ was the ‘open awareness context’ – allowing for open discussion and preparation for death – which at that time was not a very prevalent context. In-between these closed and the open awareness contexts there were different other contexts in varying degrees respectively hiding and disclosing aspects of the truth. If we transfer these microsociological ideas of Glaser and Strauss to the collective or macrosociological level of society, it is clear that we also live through and support different cultural ‘awareness contexts’ when it comes to how we perceive, are exposed to, talk about, manage and ascribe meaning to death. As mentioned above, we have been increasingly used during the time of ‘Forbidden Death’ and to some extent also in the age of ‘Spectacular Death’ to real death being absent and primarily visible through the mediatized and fictionalized pornography of death. However, the door to a potentially much more open awareness context has by the arrival of Corona virus suddenly forced us to confront and make sense of death as something that does in fact happen in large scale to real people all over the world – and perhaps even to ourselves.


As has been suggested above, the current Corona Crisis may have awakened our slumbering awareness of death, making us realise that the presumed safety and security of our lives rests on a thin crust that may rupture and dissolve at any time. Whether this new awareness will be a more lasting experience or whether it evaporates again as soon as the immediate Corona scare is over (and the media starts to concentrate on other matters than the virus) is difficult to determine. I suspect that we will soon again forget about this death that suddenly kicked in the doors to our awareness and return to our well-tested and quite effective strategies of death denial and death suppression. Our cultural forgetfulness is well-known and the short-term nature of our memory will probably make real death sink back into oblivion. Only time will tell if the Corona Crisis marked an actual turning-point in our culturally ingrained death denial and in the recognition of our collective vulnerability. Only time will tell if we will have to get used to such unpleasant and tumultuous periods of ‘death scare’ in the future, where new and deadly diseases suddenly appear on the global agenda. At the end of the day, we are after all, as Peter L. Berger rightly observed, just people banded together in the face of death, and now perhaps more than ever before on a global scale.

Biography

Michael Hviid Jacobsen is Professor of Sociology at the Department of Sociology and Social Work, Aalborg University, Denmark. His research interests include: social theory, death and dying, emotions, crime, deviance, palliative care and qualitative research methods. Email: mhj@socsci.aau.dk

References

Ariès, P. (1974), Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Baudrillard, J. (1991/1995), The Gulf Did Not Take Place. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

Bauman, Z. (1992), Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Becker, E. (1973/1997), The Denial of Death. New York, Free Press.

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Berger, P. (1969), The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York, Doubleday.

Berridge, K (2002), Vigor Mortis: The End of the Death Taboo. London, Profile Books.

Freud, S (1915/1957), ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’, in James Strachey (ed.): The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Volume 14). London, Hogarth Press, pp. 275-300.

Glaser, B. and Anselm S. (1965), Awareness of Dying. Chicago, Aldine.

Gorer, G. (1955), ‘The Pornography of Death’. Encounter, October, pp. 49-52.

Illich, I. (1976): Limits to Medicine: Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health. London, Penguin Books.

Jacobsen, M. (2016), “‘Spectacular Death’ – Proposing a New Fifth Phase to Philippe Ariès’s Admirable History of Death’. Humanities, 5 (19), pp. 1-20.

Jacobsen, M. (ed.) (2020), The Age of Spectacular Death. London, Routledge.

Khapaeva, D. (2017), The Celebration of Death in Contemporary Culture. Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan Press.

Noys, B. (2005), The Culture of Death. Oxford, Berg.

Walter, T (1994), The Revival of Death. London, Routledge.

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