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Contemporary Views Of Death And Dying

In his history of the Western European attitude toward death, The Hour of Our Death, Philippe Aries suggests that there is a relationship between a person's views of death and four psychological themes:

  1. self-awareness
  2. defense against untamed nature
  3. belief in an afterlife and
  4. belief in the existence of evil.

(Aries, 602-3) In describing contemporary views of death Aries says that society has become ashamed of death, afraid of death. And to hide that fear it behaves as if death does not exist. (Aries, 613) By hiding the dying process in hospitals, by developing the whole funeral industry, by denying the grief of the bereaved, society has "reduced death to the insignificance of an ordinary event that is mentioned with feigned indifference." (Aries, 614) Yet this attitude toward death has not eliminated either death or the fear of death. Instead the image of the dying hospital patient covered with tubes "is becoming a popular image, more terrifying than the transit or skeleton of macabre rhetoric." (Aries, 614) In response anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists are attempting to reconcile death with happiness. They are attempting to make death "the discreet but dignified exit of a peaceful person from a helpful society that is not torn, not even overly upset by the idea of a biological transition without significance, without pain or suffering, and ultimately without fear." (Aries, 614) Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 classic On Death and Dying may have been the beginning of this movement. In her work with dying patients she developed what has become the contemporary psychology of dying. In the introductory sections of her book she proclaims that "[d]eath is still a fearful, frightening happening, and the fear of death is a universal fear even if we think we have mastered it on many levels. (Ross, 5) She goes on to describe how modern death has "become lonely and impersonal" due to the rise of technology and the increasing separation between medical staff and their patients. (Ross, 8-9) She attributes much of this alienation to the anxiety felt by the medical staff in the face of death, denial of death on the part of both individuals and society at large and the decrease in the number people who believe in a life after death, that is, immortality. (Ross, 14-15) Keeping in mind the postmodern awareness of death, this paper will use both Aries' and Ross' critique of contemporary society to analyze the responses to our survey questions and other Pagan responses to death and dying in an effort to find in this "liminal time and space" alternative religious reflections. Although Pagans live in the culture described by Aries and Ross they seem to have developed attitudes that are different from those of the surrounding culture, particularly in reference to an afterlife. Many Pagans have rejected the tradition Christian view of eternal reward or damnation (heaven or hell), instead they seemed have developed a set of alternative views of what happens after death. Of the respondents to our survey thirteen proclaimed a belief in some type of reincarnation/recycling and five in some other type of afterlife and only one denied any type of continued existence. But before we can explore these ideas in more depth, we need to review one of the stable myths of the Neo-Pagan movement.

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