The coronavirus pandemic is affecting 2.3 million people worldwide, more than 164,000 of whom have died to date since its emergence in China last December. One grim tally follows another like a dark litany on all the world's media. Yet many works by historians, such as those of Philippe Ariès, have been published. (1) and Michel Vovelle or sociologists such as Norbert Elias (2)The results of the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Psychological Association, show that for several decades we have been witnessing a "denial of death", a "forbidden death", what Geoffrey Gorer calls "death pornography". Death would no longer be visible? Matthieu Smyth, Professor of Religious Sciences at the University of Strasbourg studying and teaching the history of European rites (pre-Christian and Christian) offers us here an anthropological and historical view.
It wasn't that long ago...
Professor Pierre Dellamonica, then an intern at the CHU de Lyon, recalls: "People were arriving on stretchers, in a catastrophic state. They were dying of pulmonary haemorrhage, cyanotic lips, all gray. They were of all ages, 20, 30, 40 and over. "We didn't have time to bring out the dead. They were crammed into a room in the back of the ICU. And we evacuated them when we could, during the day, in the evening (in C. Bensimon, "1968, la planète grippée", Libération, 7 December 2005).
The Hong Kong Flu, which spread from 1968 to the spring of 1970, claimed a million victims, including 40,000 in France during the winter of 1969-70. The French population then barely exceeded 50 million. As for the Asian Flu of 1956-1958, it had caused twice as many victims.
Neither my mother nor any potential witnesses I may have interviewed remember these events. No one paid much attention to them at the time. In 1970, there was no hourly morbid countdown, no continuous bombardment of anxiety-provoking information about the population, no medieval-style isolation measures as if the Black Death had returned, no masked individuals wandering the streets...
And no panicking.
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You don't have to be a great cleric to realize that mentalities have changed since then. Our relationship to suffering and death is no longer the same. Neither is our relationship to technical power.
Death is obscured by the thick veil of denial. It's so scary. Even though many individuals can still cope with the idea of it individually, this is not true of everyone. The transhumanist fantasies of freeing oneself, thanks to technology, from old age and even death are a caricature of this. Above all, mourning is now perceived as unbearable suffering. Losing a loved one has always been painful. But our lives, saturated with emotion, no longer allow us to contemplate this kind of ordeal. Moreover, we perceive our destinies in such an individual way that we can no longer rely on the feeling of belonging to a community that transcends us.
Finally, anxiety has spread throughout society in a universal and intense way. Everyone suffers it or at least has to fight against it. It is not a context that facilitates reflection in the face of suffering, old age and death. Nor in the face of illness. The diffuse fear in which we are constantly bathed without being able to name it comes to crystallize on parasites, bacteria and viruses when they reappear.
...inhabited by anguish...
And this is where our anxiety meets the feeling of technical omnipotence that has gradually settled in the West with the modern era, particularly with the progress of medicine. We do not tolerate this feeling of omnipotence being thwarted. This feeling is so reassuring for us who are so anxious by nature! That micro-organisms dare to challenge our illusion of universal mastery is unbearable for us. We dream of ourselves as superman. We have the ambition to challenge the gods and the cosmos with the power of our technology, but when the feeling of the vanity of this effort overwhelms us, it becomes impossible for us to escape the terror that inhabits us.
The declining anthropocene ended up constructing a mythical discourse about himself where death is no longer part of life. The vegan ideology and its panic horror at animal death bears witness to this. And while suffering is a danger signal in itself, absolutely necessary, sent to us by our nervous system, we are bent on anaesthetizing it - at the risk of our lives. Thus we can no longer understand that the suffering of mourning is a price to be paid in proportion to the value that humans (except sociopaths) by nature place on social ties.
The road travelled by our civilization to reach the triumph of this ideology
Promethean is amazing. Since the dawn of time, the relationship to death has been constructed through specific rituals. These present human life as a participation in the community to which it belongs as much as in the living cosmos in which it is immersed. Death marks a return to the universe that surrounds it - the crucial phase of a perpetual cycle. The life cycle of the individual comes to an end, but becomes part of something much larger, which continues to generate life.
The ceremonies that accompany mourning remind the living. They force them - if I dare say so - to accept this departure. This is why archaic funeral ceremonies chase the body of the deceased away from the living. His world will henceforth be that of the spirits: a subtle world, close but hidden, underground and bounded by the waters. The deceased must not return to disturb the living untimely - as one who was struck by a violent death and could not be buried is likely to do. The dead must only return at specific moments, when the veil that hides the spirit world is torn. Then the spirits can emerge into the visible world in order to make it fruitful. After the Neolithic period, humans were increasingly divided between the dominated and the dominant.
The powerful wanted to affirm, in the face of those who were subject to them, the durability of their particular numinous power by defying death and time under their tumulus. To the point of building pyramids. In this logic, some leaders are divinized. In the 19th century, the West will take the habit of democratizing stone burials to the point of building the hideous cemeteries of our cities. Today, hardly anyone returns to the earth's biomass.
Fertility and death
In archaic rituals, the feasts that follow the funeral are joyful. We celebrate life. In Ireland, it is still forbidden to cry during the Burial Party. It is a feast as the name suggests.
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In the archaic view of the world, life and death are closely intertwined. Life feeds on death and death feeds on life. Death is a stage that the cycle of life is in absolute need of.
Moreover, in all ancient mythological traditions (animist, say), the mythical figures of death and fertility are confused. This is as true of the Welsh psychopomp Angau (the Breton Ankou) as it is of Bawon sammdi voodoo. In the same way, the seasonal irruption of the spirits of the forest manifests as much the emergence of the spirits of the dead as that of the force of fruitful chaos. Life sinks into the chthonian world of winter only to reappear at the first light of spring to revive the cosmos. With the first frosts, the bear god disappears into his sylvan lair to be reborn at the end of winter. Similarly, the Mysteries of Eleusis celebrate the spring return of Persephone from Hades.
Osiris personifies at the same time the world of the dead, plant fertility and life. This remains true for the Christian mystery since the Crucified One sinks at Easter into the bowels of the earth to defeat Hell and free its captives, before ascending to heaven to give life to all.
Moreover, in the medieval Christian vision, death comes to make everyone equal, whether they are deer, emperors or pope. The vanity of the earthly authorities, even if they were ecclesiastical, is unmasked. The theme of the Dance of Death, born at the same time as the Black Death (which kills more than a third of the population), unfolds, according to the symbolism of the carnival rite, this representation of human equality in the face of death.
From Orpheus to the Camarde
However, this unique pandemic experience - a nightmare if ever there was one - will mark a turning point in funeral aesthetics. From now on, the tone of the funeral will be much more disturbing. The artists of the autumn of the Middle Ages would thus begin to personify death: a corpse or several walking corpses inspiring disgust and fear.
This is how the terrifying folk figures of the Camarde and then the Grim Reaper were born (in fact we only know the Breton Ankou in this frightening form). We are far from the old Charon and the other ancient psychopumps, Hermes, Orpheus, Anubis, Epona, Saint Michel... At the end of the 14th century, anguish thus makes a brutal and massive irruption in pictorial art. It is a radical iconographic novelty whose success will not be denied until the end of the Baroque and whose greatest masters seize Holbein, Dürer, Bruegel the Elder ... His "Triumph of Death" suggests horror in the face of the plague but also in the face of total war.
Our modern world will increasingly darken its vision of death at the same time as it loses sight of the organic link it offers with fertility. For their part, parallel to the myth of the Camarde, the Christian funerary rites themselves, from the festive that they were originally, are going to become much darker in modern times: black chasuble and "... a black chasuble and "... a black robe...". Dies irae » !
At the same time, the social bond dissolves. You can now die alone, far from your loved ones who first forgot you in some old people's home, on a hospital bed, after having been kept alive at arm's length for months by technology and petrochemical products... Here, nothing has any roots, no meaning or purpose.
All this will only have a time.
Matthew SmythProfessor, University of Strasbourg. Theology and religious sciences.