The fear of death and dying has been with humanity since its existence, and now we have religion. Humans never feared the corpse, though, until recently. In the early society of the United States death rituals were usually held by the family of the deceased. Burials themselves were fast, since no embalming was needed and simple wooden caskets were usually used. Changes in funeral and burial traditions came about during the Industrial Revolution, and were seen as necessary due to cultural shifts on views towards death, income, and the Civil War. The modern funeral now consists of removing the body from the home or hospital, embalming them, a viewing of the body is held, and then the body is finally buried in a cemetery or cremated. The modern funeral also comes with a few misconceptions such as: the deceased’s body being a health risk, that it must immediately be whisked away to the hands of an embalmer, and the idea that home funerals are “weird,” but why? In early American culture the women in a family would prepare the deceased’s body for burial, washing and dressing the corpse.
The Industrial Revolution allowed people to manufacture metal caskets, protecting the deceased from the elements and also protecting public health from the by-products of materials used and decomposition, if the casket were to leak. Metal caskets were also used as a display of wealth and status. Embalming started to gain widespread acceptance in the United States during the civil war. Embalming the deceased at or near the battlefield allowed them to send soldiers’ bodies back home to their loved ones to be buried. Even more support for embalming was given when the embalmed body of Abraham Lincoln was shipped over 1,600 miles, during which it remained intact. Embalming provided technological advances that changed funeral rites and allowed the profession of undertaker to flourish. Death rituals themselves still took place in the home of the deceased until about the 20th century when the modern funeral home emerged. As the cultural view of death changed so did the grieving process and views of dead bodies, now many see death as inevitable, frightening, and that it should be hidden away only to be dealt with when the time arises. Why is it that humans have become so avoidant towards death? There is this belief that a dead body is more dangerous than a living one, but how? Unless the deceased died from a wildly infectious disease such as Ebola or Smallpox they are totally safe. The decomposition process is natural and harmless, a part of life. The same bacteria found in the living body (such as E.coli) are also involved in the decomposition process. When it comes to the thought of death itself, humans have the ability to understand the deeper meanings behind death. Dealing with the death of a loved one or someone we know means we have to face the reality and inevitability of death: theirs and our own. People are trying to avoid an important fact of life, but at the same time human life and progress is ultimately driven by the fear of death by creating the drive to prove oneself and be successful. There are those today that make a living by looking death in the face: undertakers.
On June 3, 2001, a television series called “Six Feet Under” aired on HBO in the United States and allowed America to get an idea of what the job was like and what facing one’s own mortality is like. Six Feet Under is about the Fishers, a family that owns and operates an independent funeral home in Los Angeles. First Episode in the patriarch, Nathaniel Fisher, dies in a car crash granting ownership to his sons Nate and David (and daughter Claire and wife Ruth). The Fisher family is left having to cope with a death in their family while still trying to work in the grief-management business. A major theme in the show is human mortality, especially for those who have to deal with it on a day to day basis. A study was conducted to see if a television series such as “Six Feet Under” could change young adult’s attitudes towards death. There were 174 participants between the ages of 18 to 36. They met once a week for 3 hours for 15 weeks. On the first night all students completed one of two surveys. Seventy four students were assigned to a group that completed a survey including the instruments: the Death Attitude Profile, the Multidimensional Fear of Death Scale, and the shortened version of the Death Threat Index. The second group comprising of the remaining students took a survey unrelated to the study about media attitudes and did not complete the surveys about death attitude until after they viewed all episodes of Six Feet Under. The end results yielded that “young adults generally avoid thinking of death unless the subject and its various dimensions are made salient to them…viewing the series made neutral or positive acceptance of death much more less likely, fear of death and desire to avoid thoughts of death more likely, and a willingness to see death as an escape less likely. Similarly, the perception that death represents a threat to one’s present and ideal-self increased.” The show did not have much of a positive impact on these young adults. It made anxieties towards death and dying go up because death is not much of a common thought unless it happens to them (i.e. relative/loved one passes away).
The only positive outcome was that Six Feet Under, “prompted less fear about what happens to the body after death…observing the respect and care for the bodies in the Fisher & Sons Funeral Home may have led to such changes.” Anxieties on what happened to your body after you died were quelled because it is an undertaker’s job to care about the deceased and their family. Six Feet Under may not have particularly swayed this group of students to think more positively about death, but it got them thinking about those important issues.