Perspective: Death In The Time Of COVID-19

May 15, 2020

Many deathbed scenes before the Black Death of mid-14th century Europe featured a dying person surrounded by community. For decades after that plague, they were often shown alone with death. Fear of contagion changed behaviors toward corpses. What would plague do in a culture that already denied death, like in the United States?

Mourning in black for a year—to ritualize a life lived through each day without the loved one—is an antiquated practice in Europe, but unheard of here, where people prefer to say “he passed away” rather than “he died.”

Most Victorian deathbed scenes depict the corpse surrounded by community at home, and the family shares its grief publicly. Until the 20th century, Americans did the same, and families helped prepare the corpse for the tomb. Today, death is hidden away in our language and also in fact. Most Americans die in hospitals and senior homes, while funeral homes cremate or take over burial preparations.

A student once suggested that denial of death begins in childhood through media and avoidance of the subject in society. Children are usually kept from witnessing death. Even the death of a pet is often avoided with notions of “animal heaven.” This childhood ignorance of death eventually produces adult denial of it.

In our pandemic, are we pushing all the care and support of the dying to medical workers? Will the rise in home deaths help us grieve more openly, or will we continue to keep our dying out of sight and out of mind?

I'm Bill Gahan and that is my perspective.