Dying Bodies: Ageing and Death

Words by Eleanor Barnett and Katrina Moseley

In our last term as conveners, it seemed fitting to consider endings; our focus this term was on the embodied processes of ageing and dying throughout history.  A fate that befalls us all, dying has been a universal concern of humanity throughout time and across cultures. How we feel about the process is dependent upon our fundamental beliefs about what happens when we die and what it means to be alive.

Maeve Lentricchia, PhD student in Classical Philosophy at Cambridge, used her paper to explore Epicurean reflections on death in the writings of the ancient Roman philosopher, Lucretius (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC). Drawing on the work of Epicurus, Lucretius argued that if all the atoms that made up a person were to be reformulated after death, the resultant body would not constitute the same person as before. Although, for Epicureans like Lucretius, the material world and the soul was composed entirely of physical atoms, Lucretius reasoned that the act of disassembly – the separation of body and soul through death – was the end point of existence. Consciousness was key in Lucretius’ theory, Maeve suggested, since he argued that recognition of the self was no longer possible upon death. Accordingly, death itself, ‘the total annihilation of the person’, could not be feared; it was simply unconsciousness, no better or worse than the state of not yet being born.

Not existing after death was seemingly a comfort to Lucretius, whilst for others today it seems that a belief in an afterlife can allay some of the fear of death, based on the notion that the self continues. Yet, as we discussed in our reading group, Hannah Newton’s article on the experience of death in early modern England complicates this assumption. Images of hell-fire and eternal suffering were commonplace in early modern Christianity, and the Puritan belief in predestination, which abolished the power of actions to influence one’s posthumous fate, could have made death even more terrifying in its passive quality. Nevertheless, factoring in the idea of joyful assurance in salvation, Newton offered an alternative more positive reading of Puritan conceptions of death.[1]

Fear, but also obsession with death, was a striking aspect of the work of English poet, Samuel Johnson (1709­–1784), as revealed to us in a fascinating paper by Dr Laura Davies, lecturer in English at Cambridge. Tasked with writing about the lives and careers of a number of well-known literary figures, (The lives of the most eminent English poets, 1793) Johnson dwelt heavily upon the ignominious circumstances of their deaths. Yet he professed elsewhere that the true purpose of the biography, as a literary convention, was to highlight the ‘minute particulars’ of an individual’s character, thus creating a ‘chain of sympathy’ with the reader. Johnson’s accounts of death, then, can seem ‘undignified’ and ‘excessively graphic’, voyeuristic even, to the modern reader. But as Laura suggested, there are layers of interpretation here. The writings can be related to an eighteenth-century tradition that saw the moment of death as the moment of truth, revealing the essential nature of the subject. There is also a sense in which Johnson is projecting his own fears of death onto the page; he suffered long bouts of illness throughout his life, coming to a violent end in 1784, when he stabbed his own fluid-filled legs in an attempt to ease his chronic pain, but bled out and died.

Such considerations relating to one’s own death are also significant in anxieties about the mortality of loved ones. In her paper on the material culture of mourning in nineteenth century Britain, Maggie Kalenak (History PhD student at Cambridge) showed us that death was intimately connected to love in the Victorian imagination. Entering a marriage contract involved the possibility of childbirth, which, in turn, brought into focus the looming possibility of death. Moreover, during courtship, anxieties about lovesickness, which was thought to be detrimental to physical health, could easily translate into anxieties about death itself. Middle-class women were frequently depicted as fragile, thin, and predisposed to swooning.

‘A baffled doctor taking the pulse of a love-sick young woman, her maid slips a billet-doux secretly into her hand.’ 19th century lithograph.

Though nowadays in modern Western culture we are commonly divorced from the physical process of dying (it is often something that happens in private or in a sterile hospital room), for the Victorians physical mementos of the deceased lover, like a lock of hair made into jewellery, were important embodied reminders of mortality. Moreover, ritualised mourning offered a set timeline for coming to terms with death (six months for the death of a brother, three months for the death of a friend): this public performance of grief is something that has been lost since the nineteenth century, with grieving bodies now existing unmarked and undecipherable.

Leading on from this, in our reading group, we discussed the problems of connecting to the emotional experience of grief in the past. If we only have access to the words that people used to describe their emotions in times gone by, are we ever able to understand the embodied feelings of grief? This is an ongoing debate within the history of the emotions, but as Hannah Newton has argued in the context of the early modern period, this division has perhaps been overstated. Viewing emotions as a form of bodily practice, in the way that Monique Scheer suggests that we view them, will enable us to gain at least some valuable insight into the texture of past feelings.[2]

We noticed also in our reading group that this term’s theme had implied a close relationship between ageing and death. However, in the mid nineteenth-century, when the average life expectancy was just forty-three, Maggie noted that every small ailment for child or adult could be the source of great anxiety. Our assumptions around ageing and death were linked of course to advancements in medical care, but also to deeply-held conceptions about what constitutes a ‘good’ death. As Alex Dumas has argued, capitalism is interwoven today with the apparent need to stop ageing, yet in the G7 life expectancy continues to grow. Ours is ‘a social context that provides high status to young and productive bodies, while holding derogatory discourses on the aging body […]  mak[ing] it more and more difficult to meet any realistic standard of life fulfilment.’[3]

The contemporary boundaries between public and private grief were another interesting point of discussion in our reading group this term. Drawing on opinion polls and surveys which suggest that Britons were affected by Princess Diana’s death in 1997, but not in deep, un-ending, mourning, James Thomas has argued that popular memory of this event was distorted by the British mass media. As Thomas Dixon puts it elsewhere, ‘Television coverage tended to zoom in on tear-streaked faces and then juxtapose these individual images with pictures of huge crowds […] convey[ing] the false impression of a collective response of mass weeping’. A far cry from the presentation of women as ‘leaky vessels’ in Shakespearean texts, Elizabeth II’s stoic response to Diana’s death, and the media attention surrounding, this is another interesting aspect of collective memory. Perhaps it further highlights what Dixon has described as the ‘Catch 22 of femininity and tears’: ‘the fact that women are condemned as weak and manipulative if they weep, but hard-hearted and unfeminine, even a witch, if they do not’.[4]

Newspaper coverage for the public funeral of Princess Diana. Evening Mail, 1 September, 1997.

Finally, Professor Jeffrey Bishop, social and moral philosopher at Cambridge, encouraged us to rethink our understanding of dying itself. Since the 1960s, the Western medical profession has maintained that an individual is deceased after twenty-four hours of ‘brain death’. Yet, this is not an objective, or universally-agreed-upon measurement, with some arguing that brain death is a ‘legal fiction’ or social construction. As Jeff pointed out, the first surgeon to perform a heart transplant in Japan was accused of two counts of murder, since the heart is more fundamental to Japanese concepts of selfhood. And even in America today, definitions of brain death vary between and within states, according to different legal and religious views. Jeff went on to consider how organ procurement organisations (OPUs) have, since the early 2000s, encouraged a re-framing of death in the West. All bodies ultimately die due to cardiovascular collapse (if your whole brain dies, your heart can go on for hours); yet in western culture the brain is often taken to be the true site of the self. Medical and economic pressures around organ donation encourage a reformed view of death as the loss of functioning in the brain, making it acceptable to argue that the bodies of those who are in a consistent vegetative state should be harvested for organs.

By the end of the term, it became clear that in asking questions about death, we were really asking questions about life– how to live well, and where – in the body or in a spiritual realm – we think life exists.

Many thanks to all our speakers –Dr Laura Davies, Professor Jeffrey Bishop, Maeve Lentricchia, and Maggie Kalenak – and to those all who attended and contributed to the meetings. Thanks for another wonderful term – and year – of interdisciplinary discussion!

Food for thought:

Bishop, Jeffrey, The anticipatory corpse: medicine, power, and the care of the dying (Paris, 2011), esp. Prelude

Brady, Andrea, “A share of sorrows”: death in the early modern English household’, in Susan Broomhall, ed., Emotions in the household, 1200 – 1900 (Basingstoke, 2008).

Dumas, Alex, cap. 27 ‘Rejecting the aging body’, in Bryan S. Turner (ed.), Routledge handbook of body studies (Oxon, 2012).

Hart, Liana and Stefan Timmermans, (2012), cap. 16 ‘Death signals life: a semiotics of the corpse’, in Bryan S. Turner (ed.), Routledge handbook of body studies

Newton, H. (2017) ‘Rapt up with joy’: children’s emotional responses to death in early modern England’. In: Barclay, K., Reynolds, K. and Rawnsley, C. (eds.) Death, emotion and childhood in premodern Europe. Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp. 87-107.

Noakes, L., (2015). ‘Gender, Grief, and Bereavement in Second World War Britain’, Journal of War and Culture Studies. 8 (1), 72-85.

Parkin, Tim, Old age in the Roman world: a cultural and social history (Baltimore, 2003), esp. introduction.

Scheer, Monique. “Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion.” History and theory 51.2 (2012): 193-220.

Thomas, J. (2008). From people power to mass hysteria: Media and popular reactions to the death of Princess Diana. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 11(3), 362–376.  Thomas Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears (Oxford, 2015)

[1] Newton, ‘Rapt up with joy’: children’s emotional responses to death in early modern England’, 87-107.

[2] Ibid.; Scheer, “Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion”, 193-220.

[3] Dumas ‘Rejecting the aging body’, 378.

[4] Dixon, Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears, 228–304.

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