Historians have noted three major shifts in the American experience of death: Living death (1600-1830), the dying of death (1830-1945), and the resurrection of death (1945-present). Each of these periods shows how society’s perception about death and dying has changed over the past 400 years. As culture changes, so does people’s views of the death experience and the treatment of the dying person.
Between 1600 and 1830, death was a typical part of the American life. Everyone was well acquainted with death. Bodies were prepared for burial and laid out in a wooden coffin at home. The bodies were buried in the local cemetery, on the back portion of a rural property, or in a church graveyard. Puritans saw death as punishment for sin and encouraged one another to fear death and be prepared to meet God. After the funeral, everyone returned to daily life. Between the 1730s and 1830s, Americans were influenced by the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, Unitarianism, and evangelicalism and gave new choices from which to form new beliefs and behavior about death, dying, and bereavement.
The Dying of Death
American philosophy about death and dying began to change between 1830 and 1945 when a middle class sector began to rise amid the poor and rich. An undertaker and embalming practices came on the scene and began to separate social (public) life from home (personal) life. Families no longer needed to prepare the body at home. This not only shielded families from the harsh reality of death; it gave them a new way to deal with it through the use of caskets, hearses, music, monuments, written funeral notices, flowers, and decorations.
The Resurrection of Death
Death erupted into daily life once again when the US bombed Hiroshima. This started a cycle of war, terrorism, and the threat of the “end of the world” through powerful weapons of warfare and destruction. Today, we live with the fear that our lives could be taken by an act of war or terrorism. We have more violence in the news, movies that depict ghosts in a morbid and scary way, and we have military friends and loved ones on duty in the middle east.
For more information, you might enjoy reading the complete book More Than Meets the Eye True Stories about Death, Dying, and Afterlife. Purchase on Amazon.com