Our Ancestors Discussed Death – Why Can’t We?

“Rule one of life: we’re all going to die. Accept it and move on.” – our ancestors felt free and informed enough to discuss the topic of death, so why can’t we?

To read my new opinion piece for The National Student, click here:

Our ancestors openly discussed death – we should too

Is This What Becomes of Love?

Picture a young couple sat on a romantic table for two in the prized window location. Outside, the hum of life acts out its natural course whilst inside the firmly fixed table presents an array of steaming dishes all the colours of the rainbow. But the beautiful pair remain silent. The buzz of life is not as loud as the buzz of technology. Eyes locked on laps the lovers sit in silence, unable to exchange more than a grunt towards each other.

Is this what becomes of love?

Now imagine on the ground below a family. A gathering stood in unity on the very streets which not a week ago cradled their darling as she drifted into a long, deep, sleep. The cracked cement barely clean, the group scroll through comments of condolence and pixelated shouts. The invisible vocals scream for the head of a man they do not know in repayment for a corpse they do not know. Unable to change fate and human emotion, the huddled unit desperately make a plea to the man in the cloud. They beg him to remove their daughter from public memory, but the man says he can’t. What he giveth he cannot taketh away.

Is this what becomes of death?

Take a snapshot of the young woman tottering past the stained tiles in high heels. She joins a group of friends at the town’s third classiest bar on a table laden with overpriced toxic juice. Talk is cheap but photos might equal fame, so they ignore deep conversation in favour of recording every second of this meeting in pictorial form. Every angle in a multitude of colours and effects, it is no wonder that their untouched beverages overflow with melted ice. Who said the world is in a constant state of movement when it can be fixed and recorded in a hundred sepia selfies.

Is this what becomes of life?

Widen the lens and tucked away you find my lone figure in the shadows. The painted ladies momentarily glance in my direction before carrying on as before. Averting my gaze, I shuffle past to an attractive window display at the end of the street, but instead of venturing in I choose to remain external. I photo the object of my desires and walk on before I’m caught in the act. Later I will enable a computer to put another man on the streets from the comfort of my living room sofa. I see you and feel moved to take a secondary snap to share with strangers in Vancouver, Paris and Jerusalem. No model release form needed, I will happily take your pain and use it to claim one second of fame. Anything to get a virtual gratification hit.

Is this what becomes of me?

Oh My God, I’m Going to Die

Whenever I think of death my first thought is of week one ‘Cities of the Dead: Victorian Death Rituals in Society’. Our lecturer, Dr Jonathan Conlin, silently walked into the lecture room and said “before we start this twelve week course there is something important you need to know”. He pulled down the white board to show in capital black board markers the statement:


There was a mild chortle in the class (yes, we chortled at my University) before Conlin went to wipe the text off hastily, “that’s been up there since yesterday evening, I hope it didn’t scare the cleaners.”

By broaching this awkward subject in the first five minutes it set the tone for the rest of the module, significantly aided by a lecturer with an informal teaching style (“hey! Guys! I know we’re here to look at headstones, but look what the monks gave me, this granola bar!”) The term ‘you had to be there’ is overused in modern society, but when it comes to the study of morbid subjects you really had to have been there to understand why Victorian Death Rituals was one of my favourite ever courses. By the end of the twelve weeks I actually had a bit of era-envy for the Victorians. They celebrated death in a way that hasn’t really been seen since the start of World War One. Granted, as with everything Victorian, they did on occasion go one stage too far (I don’t think anyone wants to revive the tradition of death photography anytime soon:)


…but ultimately they were not scared of their impending fates, (not as much as we are now). I came away from the overall experience feeling more enlightened about the whole subject.

So all this aside, why do I find myself spending my Tuesday evening on Web MD convincing myself I’m going to die? It started with a slight tooth ache, most likely my wisdoms coming through, which caused me to think “hmm, I wonder how serious this could be?” I go online and bam! I’m told to go see my dentist. In Google terms that means I’m going to die. At this stage I started freaking out that my dentist is a two hour drive away and has a waiting list of ten years. If I’m going to die this would prove to be a slight inconvenience. I then tried to source another, more local dentist, only to find myself treating the search as if I was looking to buy a property. “I won’t go for anything less than four star rated, but then it needs to be in a central location with good access to work and public transport. Is there room in the budget for private? Hah! No chance, NHS only please! Ah, now I’m down to two…located in the next county.” All this stressing over impending death and dentists gave me a slight headache, so I popped in a couple of paracetamol and paused to burn make dinner. Half an hour later I was pleasantly surprised-come-relieved to find both headache and tooth pain had vanished. Guess I wouldn’t be dying today.

Admittedly I was a little bored after the excitement of the above, so I thought “I wonder if there’s new research on dry skin treatments or preventatives?” hit that up into the search engine. Guess what? There isn’t. “See your doctor or dermatologist who will be able to advise further.” So basically my hands are going to fall off. Thought of trying to type up the reports without hands = stress = dry skin = escalating chance of handless working. Isn’t that a paradox or something?

I’ve now started using Web MD symptom checker to see what various illnesses and/or diseases I could be incubating. Turns out there are a lot, all ending in one of three ways: paracetamol, doctor or calling loved ones and an ambulance because you’re stuffed. Overall, if you don’t act you’re going to die. When you think about it, isn’t it a bit alarming how much trust we put into computer software, the most un-human thing there is, to tell us how to deal with our ailments? Computer code informs us whether that sprain is life threatening or can be left alone? Why are we even at this stage when we’re frequently being told our General Practitioner (doctor) service is at the point of collapse? Are these websites fuelling the pressure by playing to innate fear and paranoia or are they reducing it by prescribing us with a couple of aspirins? More likely the former than latter.

Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that we seem to think ourselves liberated, that we in the Western world can, within our agreed laws, do whatever we want, say whatever we want, think whatever we want. But are we though? It’s funny how we look back on the Victorians as uptight, stiff upper lip sorts that didn’t know the meaning of ‘letting one’s hair down’ and we in the 21st century seem to think ourselves as being more free in comparison. But lets take a closer look at that theory. I mean, when was the last time you frankly talked about death? Not just the existence/non-existence of an afterlife, but everything from how you want to die, how you want the funeral to be conducted, even how long you want to be publically mourned? When was the last time you received a letter with a black border, or saw someone walking down the street dressed head to foot in black crape? Funny how nowadays someone in similar attire may attract stares or verbal abuse. Back then black held a higher regard in society.

Now, when was the last time you talked about that dishy guy on second floor? Or the girl you slept with the other night? Did you watch 50 Shades of Grey or buy some handcuffs from Ann Summers? On the surface it seems weird to think people would have their coffins made whilst they were still alive, or that news of someone ‘dying well’ would draw crowds. I won’t lie, I can think of better ways to spend my Sunday afternoon. But then these people would have equally looked at us as weird backward creatures for discussing such puerile topics on the street for all to hear.

So, to summarise, we’ve gone from one era who celebrated death but was disgusted by sex to another era 150 years later who celebrates sex but refuses to discuss death. And we think of the Victorians as an uptight bunch. Kinda funny, huh?