This is a comprehensive social history of European (or "Western") attitudes toward death and dying over the last thousand years. Ariès organizes his history into five sequential cultural constructs, each of which conveys the meaning of death to the individual and community, as well as the social institutions around death and dying, during a different period of Western history, beginning in the Middle Ages.

Cultural responses to death must begin by acknowledging that death is mysterious and overwhelming; a wild beast; a meaningless monster. Death lurks at the edge of our consciousness, ready to destroy us and demolish whatever meaning we attribute to our lives. In medieval Europe Christianity had domesticated this monster by establishing a comprehensive set of beliefs and practices that Ariès calls the "tame death." Death was merely a transition to eternal life. The individual was understood as an integral part of the community and not as autonomous and isolated. Therefore, death and dying were communal events, supported by specific prayers and practices (i.e. ars moriendi) that "tamed" the unknown.

In the centuries that followed, Ariès's "tame death" evolved through five stages into the radically different cultural conception of death that characterizes Western society--especially in its American form--today. These changes result largely from the gradual replacement of community-oriented personal identity with today's radical individualism; and the gradual sequestration of death to a position behind the scenes, so that dying and death become remote from ordinary experience.

In today's world we encounter "invisible death," a somewhat paradoxical name because its invisibility allows the savage beast free rein. Death is no longer "tame" because we deny its existence so effectively we no longer develop personal and communal resources to give it meaning. Death's invisibility enhances its terror; our culture's loss of spirituality enhances death's meaninglessness.


Ariès presents his case in a style characteristic of French intellectuals--a wealth of individual cases and details, elegant in theory but rather weak on everything that lies in between. That is, he uses evidence selectively to support his conceptualization, but isn't much concerned with tracking down incompatible data, or examining alternate hypotheses. In the end the reader must judge the accuracy of Ariès's account of the social history of death on the basis of how aesthetically appealing it is, or how well it "fits" into the reader's belief system.

The author's contrasting images of death in the medieval and contemporary worlds are compelling, even though it seems likely that he exaggerates the "tameness" of medieval death and death's invisibility today. As to the stages in-between, they, too, seem plausible, although more narrow in application. For example, the "beautiful death" of the Romantic era is an image that probably relates only to people of higher social class or with certain educational background.

Ariès's "invisible death" provides a richer analysis of our situation than does the usual "we live in a death-denying society" commentary. Consequently, Ariès's social history perspective can be a useful starting point for discussing at least some of the barriers to providing good end-of-life care.


Translated from the French by Helen Weaver


Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published

New York



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