Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Memento Mori: Death in the West Through the Ages

September 8th, 2022 | 13 min read

By Cole Hartin

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, KJV)

Late in the fall I stood at the graveside, the cutting gale off the Bay of Fundy stinging my skin. At my feet was a hole in the ground, surrounded by a group of about fifteen people. I tried to hold open the pages of my prayer book which fluttered in the wind. The towering trees planted generations ago stood like sentinels, their gnarled branches curled over our heads, with a few stubborn leaves left clinging to them. I read,

In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displease? Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not they merciful ears to our prayers; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal.

After these words, the family and assisting funeral director began to lower the casket into the ground. During the whine of the mechanical lift letting down the corpse, I continued,

Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to receive unto himself the soul of our dead brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our mortal body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby his is able to subdue all things to himself.

These words are taken from the funeral rite of the Canadian Book of Common Prayer. Not much has changed between the service of the 1662 English prayerbook. If a time warp were opened and a curate were to fall from a seventeenth-century English village onto the scene, he would be able, likely, to follow along with the service by memory.

Despite the old-timey language of the Book of Common Prayer it gives a fair summary of Christian beliefs about death.

What are these Christian beliefs about death?

First, death is linked to sin for which God is “justly displeased” and so death comes as a judgement of God.

Second, death is at the same time the natural end of finite creaturely life. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” for whatever else we might be, Christians believe that we are material beings, and the matter with which we were fashioned will return to the earth.

Finally, death is not the end. Christians, looking to the death and resurrection of Christ, suggest there is “sure and certain hope” that our bodies will be like his glorious body.

Given that the Christian tradition has been the dominant influence on Western thought for the past 1700 years, the Christian conception of death has been, until recently, the de facto Western conception. And it’s remained remarkably consistent up until the present.

What changed significantly was enthusiasm about death. In the earliest centuries Christians were willing to look past death toward the hope that was beyond it. As the centuries unfolded, they felt increasing trepidation as they prepared to die. Death was a fearsome threshold, but it was the means for transitioning from life to fuller life.

It is only in the present post-Christian West that enthusiasm for death has started to grow again, only it is no longer a threshold, but an end, an end that is often perceived to be preferable to life.

Humans have been thinking about death from time immemorial. But Western reflection of death only bloomed with the radical shifts that took place with the introduction and spread of Christianity. This was because Christians made radical claims about a God who had died, and thus transformed the meaning of death.

Christianity itself, however, sprung up in the milieu that resulted from the confluence of the Greco-Roman world and Second Temple Judaism.

On the one hand, we see the dominant Platonic conception of death as the ultimate separation from the soul and the body. For Plato and his followers, there was something liberating about death, because one shed the body and attained the purity of the life of the soul. Plato makes the case for this in the Phaedo. True, death was regarded as an evil, but Plato complicates the picture.

And on the other hand, we see the images of death in early Judaism. Here death remains hazy. The dead go to Sheol, the shadowy underworld, though it remains in God’s care. (Ps. 6:5, 139:8). Yet, by the first century there were already divergences within the Jewish community, with Pharisees, the most powerful sect at the time, advocating for a literal resurrection of the body after death, and the Sadducees rejecting such a belief (Mt. 22:23).

I am painting with broad brush strokes here, but both the Greek and Jewish beliefs surrounding death provided the seedbed for emerging Christian doctrine, which itself was deeply influenced by both.

If we turn to the Hebrew Bible to understand what death means in the Christian tradition, we see very early, beginning in the first chapters of Genesis that death is linked to disobedience. Thus, God’s proclamation to Adam, “you are dust and to dust you shall return” and further God’s statement that “the man has become like one of us, knowing good from evil” (Gen. 3:19, 22, NSRV). But even this narrative of the Fall is read proleptically by Christians, through the lens of Gen. 3:15, in which the “seed” of the woman will crush the head of the tempting serpent. Christians read this narrative figurally to anticipate Christ’s defeat of the powers of sin in death. In short, though Christ will defeat death, it remains a troublesome evil in human life, linked closely to human sinfulness.

Throughout the canon of the Hebrew Bible and the emerging New Testament literature we see this same link reasserted repeatedly. In Exodus, Israel suffers judgement and death for her sins, in Deuteronomy, breaking the law brings with it death. Throughout the prophets, death is closely linked to disobedience and sin. Though we see the death of the innocent in books like Job and Ecclesiastes, these are exceptions that prove the rule. Typically, death comes as the result of sin, and if one dies who has not sinned, it is troubling precisely because of this disjunction.

The central image of death in the New Testament is the image of Christ on the cross. Christ’s death comes to play on the Hebrew Bible portrayal of death as the consequence for sin, but in this case, the sinless one dies “in place” of the sinful. Romans 5:8 puts it this way “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” This theme is worked in throughout the New Testament.

Jesus’s death becomes a sacrificial offering for the sake of humanity, but he also calls his disciples to follow his example, to “take up their cross” (Lk. 9:23). This is generally read as a call to Christ-like self-denial, but it also explicitly calls Christians to martyrdom. The first instance of this is St. Stephen, who in about 34 AD is stoned for his faith in Christ (Acts 7:54-8:2).

In the Christian reading of the trajectory of Scripture, death begins as a punishment for sin but ends by being transformed when the sinless one (Christ) dies for the sake of the sinful. Death is still troublesome, but it becomes transfigured so that Christians following Jesus might want or at least be willing to die in union with him. Moreover, the “sting” of death has been removed as Christ, the “seed” of the woman (Gen. 3:15), crushes the serpent’s head and defeats evil, even if that defeat is still working itself out in time.

As the Christian church first started to spread and grow, it faced intensifying persecution.

In part, this was because Christians claimed loyalty first not to Caesar, but to Jesus Christ. This loyalty raised all kinds of questions about their political trustworthiness and drove suspicions that Christians were upsetting the political order. In addition to the suffering that was incidental to life in the first few centuries, this exacerbated fears. Thus, the Roman historian Tacitus could write of the way Christians were “covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” These especially painful and humiliating deaths were real possibilities for early Christians.

A window into Christian attitudes toward death in the second and third century comes in The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. This account is traditionally dated to 203 AD and gives a first-hand account of the martyrdom of Felicity, a pregnant woman, and Perpetua, a nursing mother. It is told in the first person by Saturus, another Christian martyr. In heart-breaking detail, the text outlines way that the women were separated from their families who they willingly left for martyrdom. It tells how Perpetua’s parents, not understanding her faith, pleaded with her and even bribed her guards to get her out. She would not recant, however, and eventually went on to die in an amphitheatre, where she, along with Felicity, were gored by wild animals, and eventually put to death by the sword. Throughout their imprisonment they prayed and saw heavenly visions that fortified them for their journey.

It is important to see how Perpetua and Felicity met their impending death. They fully embraced the prospect of death. Thus, we can read near the end of the account of Perpetua, as the games are winding down, that the rest of the Christians were

not moving and in silence received the sword; Saturus much earlier gave up the ghost; for he had gone up earlier also, and now he waited for Perpetua likewise. But Perpetua, that she might have some taste of pain, was pierced between the bones and shrieked out; and when the swordsman’s hand wandered still (for he was a novice), herself set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain (being feared of the unclean spirit) had she not herself so willed it.

This description of martyrdom is not that of a victim who has unwillingly been put to death, but of followers of Christ who felt it an honour to give up their lives for him.

The hagiographical accounts of Saints Perpetua and Felicity give us a glimpse into early Christian attitudes toward death as the Church burgeoned with growth. Even if we read the account of Perpetua with a healthy scepticism – setting historiographical questions aside, we see that, at the very least, Christians idealized this sort of death.

Death was welcomed and martyrs were lionized. But death was a means to an end, union with Christ.

After Constantine’s and Licinius’s Edict of Milan in 313, persecution for Christians eased and progressively became positive. By 380, Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica. What began as a small sect of fisherman and outcasts following an itinerant rabbi had moved from toleration, eventually to the state religion of the Empire. Christian attitudes toward death, then, became the dominant Western attitudes, though this allyship with state power left some Christians uncomfortable.

First in Egypt in the late third century, and then later in Western Europe, Christians who became tired of the cozy intimacy between the Roman Empire and the Christian Church went off alone to find a kind of “living death” in the acetic monastic life. This initial impulse to head to the desert, exemplified first by St. Anthony the Great, was especially austere. Life was spartan, fasting was regular, and a plain diet was observed.

In the Christian East, monasticism was solitary and especially austere, where in the West, later monasticism developed around community life.

But even here, aside from the short lifespans that humans could expect for most of history, the ideal remained martyrdom. In a society that was increasingly Christianized, martyrdom was simply not an option, and so death was greeted by means of extreme asceticism.

For example, in England we can look to the Shewings of St. Julian of Norwich. Though Julian was not part of a religious “order”, she, living in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, set herself up as an anchoress.

When she was around thirty years old, after a severe illness, she started to experience mystical visions. These were written down (and are in fact the first extant book in English written by a woman). In these visions she recounts how she was able to see the suffering of Jesus. And for her this suffering along with the possibility of death were not to be avoided. Like the Christian martyrs of the first century, death was an opportunity for union with Christ. She could write, “But in this I desired never bodily sight nor sheweing of God, but compassion as a kinde soule might have with our Lord Jesus that for love would beene a dedely man, and therefore I desired to suffer with Him.” For Julian, the compassion and intimacy that suffering might allow between herself and Christ was more compelling than life without it.

For the monastics death and suffering were welcomed again as a means to the end of intimacy with Christ.

As the Middle Ages ran their course, lifespans were left largely untouched, but in the Western church there developed a manual tradition that focused on ars moriendi or “the art of dying.” The term comes from two famous fifteenth-century Latin texts (one longer, one abridged) probably written by a Dominican. They dealt with temptations of the dying, prayers for the dying, and strategies for drawing near to Christ, among other things. The texts were accompanied by woodblock carvings that bring into view the purported spiritual realities that the dying one faced.

What the tradition of ars moriendi marked was a growing need to map out a faithful death when external threats to Christians for their faith had all but completely dissipated.

The spiritual and political ferment of the fifteenth century meant that the stable Catholic way of life in Western Europe was coming into question, not least because of Papal abuses, but also because of the return to Greek and Hebrew sources of Christian Scripture. Of course, the sweeping influence of the Reformation both on the Continent and England reformed not only doctrines about justification and grace but approaches to death and dying as well.

The ars moriendi tradition was shorn of Roman Catholic distinctives and reinterpreted along Protestant lines. One example of this is the “Exhortation Against the Fear of Death”, a pastoral sermon from the Anglican Book of Homilies, meant to be used in parishes with no licensed preacher.

The sermon’s aim is to aid Christians when they face death by pointing out the way that they can find solace in the nearness of Christ, joy in the world to come, and peace in the avoidance of damnation. These comforts avoided “popish” doctrines while offering real support for those heading toward death.

Death, even if it is met with more fear than in the first century, remains a doorway through which all must pass as they head toward Christ.

It was not really until the nineteenth century that narratives of deconversion and distancing from orthodox Christian belief came into vogue. And yet, even more so than in the present, these formal rejections of Christian teaching that we see woven into popular novels such as George Eliot’s Silas Marner or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh are still immersed in biblical themes and exhibit a general grasp of the basic grammar of Christian faith. In other words, many individuals left their faith behind, but they still lived within the world created by it.

What did change significantly in the eighteenth through to the mid-twentieth century was the scientific advances that allowed for further human flourishing. The demographic transition was spurred first by access to plentiful, nutritious food, and then continued through basic advances in medical technology (think inoculations, greater attention to sanitization, etc.), and carried on with access to contraception and increasingly accessible education. The result of all of this was that lifespans, once relatively short – around 25 years in the Roman Empire, early 30s by the Middle Ages, and up to 55 by the twentieth century – have been lengthening with the passing of time. The progress has not been uniform, for technology and medical advances were not universal and furthermore, the first and second World Wars undercut the lifespans of many. These deaths were the exceptions that proved the rule, however: Lives were getting longer and death was being pushed to the furthest corners of human consciousness.

When the average person lives to be 75 years or older, triple what they might expect in the Roman Empire, careers and planning for retirement are more immediate concerns than dying well.

While this great health transition that has led to longer lifespans and generally better quality of life has been a blessing, it is not unequivocally so. In his book A Time to Keep, Ephraim Radner points out (drawing from Rémi Brague) that coinciding with the health transitions has been an increasing prevalence and acceptance of suicide. For instance, in the United States, suicides rates increased by 30% in the last couple of decades, though these rates appear to be tapering off over the last couple of years. And not only this, but as lifespans stretch, there is a toll to the increasing cost and infrastructure necessary to tend of octogenarians and nonagenarians that live alone, away from their families, often in long-term care homes. A significant share of medical costs is directed to maintaining the lives of swaths of elderly who are living to ages that were unheard of a century ago.

So along with the increased quality of life and access to education, existential questions about the goodness of life and the dues of loyalty to one’s parents and grandparents have left a swirl of questions that have no easy answers. This comes into clear relief when looking at the practices of euthanasia, sometimes referred to as physician assisted suicide or medical assistance in dying (MAiD). Here, physicians who have dedicated their professional lives to healing the sick now preside over those with ill health with their death as an end. This is not a bug, but a feature. It’s true that the aim of MAiD is a comfortable and dignified death. But the reality is that its goal is not health or even minimizing pain, but death.

Death remains the terminus for all human beings who have been born or are currently alive. Even the groping attempts of the transhumanist movement do not so much as prevent death as they do radically change the definition of what it is to live. And besides this, the experience of dying is increasingly masked and sanitized, like covering up the stench of decay with cheap perfume. The bland décor of funeral homes helps us think of death like it’s simply the last in a long series of inconveniences we face like renewing our vehicle registrations or sitting in the waiting rooms of doctor’s offices.

There is a sense in which modern attitudes toward death have gone full circle and now mirror those of the first century, but with a macabre twist. Like for the martyrs of old, death is no longer delayed as long as possible, but is (in some cases) hastened, though not as an opportunity to prove one’s faith or to enter into union with Christ. Now death is a welcome end simply because life – despite (because of?) all of the advances in medical technology and increased nutrition and affluence – feels intolerably burdensome. This goes for the sick especially, and soon (at least in Canada), it will be applied to the mentally ill. But in America, for instance, suicide is “the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34,” which includes otherwise healthy young people who have their lives ahead of them.

In other words, death is not seen as a fearsome passage into a different kind of life, but rather the terminus, the end, the final nothingness in which the burdens of existence (along with existence itself) is finally snuffed out. “Dying well” is no longer about human relationships with God and reconciliation with others, but about ending life as painlessly as possible, and sometimes hastening its end.