If death is part of life, as the cliché has it, modern societies have to some extent treated it as a taboo topic. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which makes reports of deaths caused by the virus a daily feature of the news, gives a new imperative to understanding how societies have experienced and responded to death. There are few historians better equipped to provide a broad perspective on those questions than University Professor Peter Stearns, a prolific scholar of global history. He has edited a new collection of essays, The Routledge History of Death Since 1800, that take up both 250 years of changing material, quantifiable patterns of rates and causes of death that echo the perspective of the graphs that dot our news, and the cultural responses to death that include rituals that the current pandemic has frustrated, constrained, and reshaped.
The debates about whether taboos prevent modern societies from effectively responding to death drew Stearns to the project, as did the opportunity to explore death in regions of the world beyond the West not normally included in those debates, the focus of the second part of the collection. The volume also offered an opportunity to take up special topics, with essays in the third section exploring assisted suicide, hospices, and cultural responses to pet death.
The final essay draws links between the historical experience and contemporary trajectories in the experience of death, particularly the patterns of ageing that are changing many societies in ways that challenge modern cultures of death. The tragic concentrations of coronavirus deaths in aged-care facilities in the US and other Western nations has added a new dimension to those changes. Taken as a whole, this volume provides a way into a rich historical literature that gives us a framework for a multifaceted understanding of death in modern societies.
October 19, 2020