In culture after culture, people believe that the soul lives on after death, that rituals can change the physical world and divine the truth, and that illness and misfortune are caused and alleviated by spirits, ghosts, saints ... and gods.

STEVEN PINKER, How the Mind Works

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Death and the Twentieth Century

Death has become one of the great taboos of the twentieth century. At the most basic level, the level of sustenance, we do our best to hide from ourselves (and certainly from our children) the harsh facts about fried chicken, hamburgers, and bacon. A pet, too old and frail to live much longer, is "put to sleep." At the human level, we are even more isolated from the one final act that we must all experience. Few people die at home. Funeral "homes" turn the act of mourning a "departed" loved one into a sanitized reunion of family and friends. The deceased are not "dead," they have merely "passed on." Euphemisms proliferate.

It has not always been so. Our forebears, young and old alike, frequently witnessed the slaughter of animals (or their capture by predators), and they were not spared the reality of human death. They could not avoid this reality, but they could laugh at it.
Laughter is one of humankind's most basic defense mechanisms. Even in the face of death, we can show our resolve and demonstrate our last bastion of control by doing the unexpected: laughing. Gallows humor, in one form or another, permeates pre-industrial European folklore, even making its way into children's nursery tales and rhymes. Indeed, some critics have claimed that traditional nursery rhymes are preoccupied with death and violence and have hence urged that they be rewritten for a more humane and enlightened era. Consider the following catalog of horrors ostensibly found in traditional children's rhymes by Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, writing in 1952:

The average collection of 200 traditional nursery rhymes contains approximately 100 rhymes which personify all that is glorious and ideal for the child. Unfortunately, the remaining 100 rhymes harbor unsavory elements. The incidents listed below occur in the average collection and may be accepted as a reasonably conservative estimate based on a general survey of this type of literature.
  • 8 allusions to murder (unclassified),
  • 2 cases of choking to death,
  • 1 case of cutting a human being in half,
  • 1 case of decapitation,
  • 1 case of death by squeezing,
  • 1 case of death by shriveling,
  • 1 case of death by starvation,
  • 1 case of boiling to death,
  • 1 case of death by hanging,
  • 1 case of death by drowning,
  • 4 cases of killing domestic animals,
  • 1 case of body snatching,
  • 21 cases of death (unclassified),
  • 7 cases relating to the severing of limbs,
  • 1 case of the desire to have a limb severed,
  • 2 cases of self-inflicted injury,
  • 4 cases relating to the breaking of limbs,
  • 1 allusion to a bleeding heart,
  • 1 case of devouring human flesh,
  • 5 threats of death,
  • 1 case of kidnapping,
  • 12 cases of torment and cruelty to human beings and animals,
  • 8 cases of whipping and lashing,
  • 3 allusions to blood,
  • 14 cases of stealing and general dishonesty,
  • 15 allusions to maimed human beings and animals,
  • 1 allusion to undertakers,
  • 2 allusions to graves,
  • 23 cases of physical violence (unclassified),
  • 1 case of lunacy,
  • 16 allusions to misery and sorrow,
  • 1 case of drunkenness,
  • 4 cases of cursing,
  • 1 allusion to marriage as a form of death,
  • 1 case of scorning the blind,
  • 1 case of scorning prayer,
  • 9 cases of children being lost or abandoned,
  • 2 cases of house burning,
  • 9 allusions to poverty and want,
  • 5 allusions to quarreling,
  • 2 cases of unlawful imprisonment,
  • 2 cases of racial discrimination.
  • Expressions of fear, weeping, moans of anguish, biting, pain and evidence of supreme selfishness may be found in almost every other page.

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