A Brief History of Death by Douglas J. Davies

Eras Journal – McNicoll, J: Review of “A Brief History of Death”, Douglas J Davies

Douglas J Davies, A Brief History of Death,
Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA, 2005.
Isbn 1 4051 0183 0

Douglas Davies is an authority in the fields of death and religion. He teaches in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, has published widely in these areas, and is a member of the editorial board ofMortality .

In A Brief History of Death (Blackwell, 2005), which is the latest in the Blackwell Brief Histories of Religion series, Davies explores the many-faceted nature of humanity’s relationship with death. He takes us from Babylon to the edge of the present as he explains how diverse attitudes to life and interpretations of the world are mirrored in approaches to death. Whilst advising against too hasty an acceptance of the view that there have been different kinds of consciousness of death in different eras, he identifies ‘the distinctive ways and changing fashions by which human beings have dealt both with death as an idea and with the dead as lost kin’ (p2). The image of an ancient grave marker on the cover of the book, and a photo at its heart depicting a backpack coffin, provide graphic support for his thesis that although death is ever-present in the landscape and in the human psyche, human beings travel hopefully.

Davies begins from the position that the history of death has been shaped by two fundamental aspects of human personality. The first is our self-reflective nature, which makes us compulsive meaning-makers, and the second is the human capacity for hope, which Davies equates with faith. He asserts that in the absence of proof, religious perspectives, philosophical theories and ethical positions all belong to the category of myth, but he goes on to show that they are real in their effect. Because they create frameworks within which people can imagine themselves transcending death, they inspire hope in the face of mortality. In Davies’ view, the diverse practices associated with death, whilst they reflect different meaning-making myths, are actually highly contextualised expressions of this universal relationship between life and death.

Moving from the theoretical to the practical, Davies looks at a dilemma faced by all cultures: what to do with the lifeless body. In his examination of various methods of removing the dead from society, he presents a fascinating panorama of difference and change in perceptions of the eschatological significance of the body. In the course of this review, however, he makes the claim that England and Australia are leading the development of secular funeral rites. In fact, the English attitudes and practices he describes reveal that Australia is well ahead of England in the provision of civil rituals. He speaks of a church funeral as the ‘cultural default’ position in England where it is ‘normal’ for the clergy to conduct funerals: ‘This is the easier option for people, even those with little or no active belief or commitment’ (p58). The opposite is true in Australia where civil funeral ceremonies are well accepted; approximately fifty percent of funerals are conducted in secular venues by civil celebrants. In Australia, the ‘cultural default’ is to a civil ceremony rather than a religious one. Davies’ observation that it is difficult to organise a civil funeral in England due to social pressure and the conservative attitudes of the funeral industry seems at odds with his earlier statement that England is leading in the ‘popular drift from a religiously influenced view of the world to one in which religion is marginal or ignored’ (p57).

The influence of art and architecture, music and literature in the history of death can hardly be overestimated. Davies shows how they have always ‘[spoken] words against death’ (p110), and by doing so have played a vital role not only in placing loss within a frame of hope for the future but also in providing connection with the past. However, in a history of death, even a brief one, Davies’ decision to draw all his examples from Western Christian and secular cultures does beg the question: what of non-Western traditions? Some comparative analysis of cultural icons that draw on different myths would have added another dimension to his highly illuminating discussion.

In his final chapter, Davies proposes a theory of ‘offending death’. He explains that in the West young deaths offend because the lives of the young are seen as useful to society. In contrast, the deaths of the frail elderly do not evoke the same emotional reaction because there is a growing perception that they are no longer useful to society. The well-matched examples with which he illustrates this, however, also suggest a sinister companion for offending death – a concept of dutiful death, the obligation to move on after bequeathing assets and body parts to those who can make better use of them. Is this the future of death? Davies stops short of posing the question but his discussion of related issues such as euthanasia, the frail elderly, and the shift to a youth-centred culture in the West invites consideration of this dark possibility.

Davies succeeds in his intention to ‘[bring] into brief compass a subject that touches practically every aspect of life’ (preface x) . It is a little disappointing that he chose so many of his examples from the Christian and secular West, as his decision to base his analysis on human psychology did present an opportunity for a broader comparative discussion. Nevertheless,A Brief History of Death is a thought-provoking survey of changing perspectives not only on death but also on life.

Judy McNicoll

School of Historical Studies, Monash University