Death and Dominion

Back in college I had a conversation with a friend who had recently graduated.  He was a solid guy, and a good bass player.  He seemed the perfect catch for some young Christian woman.  When I asked about his dating life he opened up a bit and told me that he had made some mistakes in years past, and now felt he should not date anyone.  He needed to get proper distance from his past to feel ready to have a genuine relationship.  A few years later, he ended up happily married.

Many other Christians have similar stories.  For me it was music.  After becoming a Christian early in college I felt that I had to purge myself of some of the music I owned, especially of the band I devoted myself to in high school.  I know now that this process is not unusual for new Christians, though it seemed so at the time.

I never really understood this process and resented it in many ways.  I had no joy in throwing away those cd’s.  But this summer I found myself involved in a conversation with Andrew Kern who pointed out that I purged myself of certain things in pursuit of proper dominion.  The music might have been perfectly legitimate, but in my non-Christian past I did not integrate the music into its proper place, and in this sense the music gained a kind of power over me.  I needed to hit the reset button, and cast my bread upon the waters so I might receive it back again, all towards the end of proper enjoyment.  Though I had no real idea why I did what I did, good came from it.  In this sense a Christian might very well listen to AC/DC and appreciate the guitar, drums, etc. without in the least feeling the need to run off and live the lifestyle described in the songs.  Such people have dominion over AC/DC.  The music has no control over them.  Rather, they use it for their own good purposes.

Phillipe Aries’ short but incisive book, Western Attitudes toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present describes just what the title indicates.  Aries’ economical style and droll French wit make this book enjoyable to read, even given the subject matter.  I don’t know where Aries’ came from theologically, but “dominion” forms the subtext of his work, which asks the question, “Is it possible for individuals and a society at large to have dominion over death?”

His first chapter, “Tamed Death,” peeled scales off my eyes.  He begins with the early medieval period and shows how these people neither ignored or feared death.  They accepted it, and, in a sense, gained dominion over it.  “Death was a ritual organized by the dying person himself, who presided over it and knew its protocol” (emphasis mine).  Of course one could never particularly determine the time of death, but through the simplicity of certain postures, and liturgies of prayer and forgiveness, one might rob death of at least some of its power.  Aries quotes Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward to describe the medieval attitude:

The old folk, who never made it to town, they were scared, while Yefrem rode horses and fired pistols at 13 . . . . But now . . .  he remembered how the old folk used to die back home on the Kama-Russians, Tartars, Votyaks, or whatever they were.  They didn’t puff themselves up or fight against it and brag that they weren’t going to die–they took death calmly [author’s italics].  They didn’t stall squaring things away, they prepared themselves quietly and in good time. . . .  And they departed easily, as if they were moving into a new house.

I have never liked the phrase, “Death gives meaning to life.”  It is an absurd sentiment.  Had Adam not fallen his life still would have had meaning, just as Enoch’s and Elijah’s life had meaning.  That attitude also gives Death a kind of power, for now we must struggle to find “meaning” in life, and without an eternal perspective this will be very difficult to do.  The medieval approach strikes me as far superior.

Aries shows that this sense of dominion man had over death disappeared over time.  The shift began in the latter Middle Ages/Renaissance/Reformation (Aries blends them together) when death came with a sense of final reckoning, a summation of life itself.  This may have had a salutary effect of bracing mankind for final judgment, but in the end it added a great deal of weight, burden, and expectation to death.  We no longer “presided” over death, rather, death came with a long list of duties and expectations.  Western man began to lose dominion.

As the Enlightenment dawned and science and “understanding” gained preeminence, health concerns began to separate people from death, both in terms of being with the dying or being around dead bodies, especially the presence of cemeteries and churches.   A secularization of last will and testaments followed.  Without the attendance of family and friends at death, documents disclosed the intentions of the dying instead of the actual dying person.

The Enlightenment in turn called forth a counter-reaction in Romanticism, where death got elevated to “sublime” status.  At first glance the Romantics appeared to bring death back into the human fold by doing so, but Aries points out that Romantics did not counter the Enlightenment as much as they supposed.  By making death a profound “experience” they put man on foreign footing in his relation to death. Under the Romantics the burden of death continued to increase, as did its power over us.

The modern age continued this trajectory, which culminated in a cult of the dead in the aftermath of World War I.  Yes, honoring the past and those gone has its place.  But Aries argues that Europe continued the dominion of death by excessive and repetitive attempts to memorialize the war-dead.  This had the same effect as before–the dead, and death itself, had power over the living.

In the Victorian era official mourning might continue for many months after the death of a loved one.  In the modern age, a modern industry has arisen to get rid of death as fast as possible.  Now,

“too evident sorrow does not inspire pity, but repugnance, it is the sign of . . . bad manners: it is morbid.  Within the family circle one also hesitates to let oneself go for fear of upsetting the children.  One only has the right to cry if no one else can hear.”

The hidden nature of death in the modern west, like the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and post-war period, adds to death’s hold over us.  It’s hiddenness shrouds it in mystery, making it seem omnipotent.  “But really, at heart we feel we are non-mortals,” Aries writes,  “And surprise!  Our life is not as a result gladdened!”

Through all this I felt that Aries perhaps gave a tad too much credence to the early medieval view.  Death is a curse, and in that sense not a natural part of life at all.  Thus, there should be something foreign and mysterious to it.  But Aries never talks about how the medievals arrived at their view, the book’s one weakness.  Perhaps we can assume that in recognizing this from Scripture and church tradition, they gained dominion precisely by naming death correctly, just as Adam gained dominion (however briefly) by naming the animals.

Once we have dominion, death might even be transformed from curse to friend.  We may remember St. Francis’ last stanza of his marvelous “Canticle of the Sun,”

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.