death mentalities

Death Mentalities in the History of Humanity

Online Exhibition

This "Online Exhibition" is linked to the course "Ceremonial Society" (Tilburg University, School of Humanities and Digital Sciences). The course presents rituals and ceremonies that are supposed to contribute to social cohesion or to the integration of ‘outsider groups’ into society. The course also focuses on rituals and ceremonies after death, disasters and atrocities.

This Online Exhibition deals with the topic of death in rituals and art. The way we deal with death and dead bodies is culturally determined and has changed during history. Using Philippe Aries' seminal books about death mentalities, we distinguish several attitudes towards death in western culture. Aries described four phases. In this Online Exhibition we will go beyond Aries and add a fifth phase. Every phase is linked to a specific period of time. The attitudes mentioned, however, give us a useful heuristic tool to research death mentalities in history and in our era. For example, 'tamed death' is charactistic for the Middle Ages, but also in our days we see elements of 'tamed death' in diverse religious death rituals.

This Online Exhibition is an invitation to think about death in relation to rituals and art. It is also an invitation to think about your own death and perhaps to start a good conversation regarding death and dying with colleagues and friends.

Martin Hoondert, associate professor in 'Music, Religion and Ritual'

Tamed Death

With ‘the tamed death’ the dead are among the living and are an aspect that is involved in everyday life, for death is not seen as a final phase but one of sleeping and waiting for the resurrection. When death arrives, it will make itself known by giving warning signs and the soon to be departed shows its acceptance by making his or her final arrangements and performing the last sacramental acts. The only death that is feared is a sudden death filled with suffering and sin. 

As Aries points out, the Middle Ages are the period of the tamed death.

A screenshot from the anime 'Plastic Memories'
Tamed Death

Doga Kobo, Plastic Memories

Plastic Memories is an anime series about a futuristic world in which androids called "Giftias" coexist with humans. They are indistinguishable to the point where you would not be able to differentiate the two until they tell you what they actually are. Giftias are therefore equal to humans in every way, shape or form, except for their lifespan. The lifespan of a Giftia is always exactly 81,920 hours, which is roughly nine years and four months. Towards the end of their lifespans, their performance starts to drop in certain areas and if a Giftia were to exceed its lifespan, it will cause problems such as increased acts of aggression, memory loss and overall disintegration of their personality. to prevent such disasters, agencies exist to retrieve Giftias nearing the end of their lifespan in order to deactivate them, which is fundamentally equal to euthanisation. Following deactivation, Giftia owners can choose to rewrite their Giftia. This involves erasing all of the Giftia's memories, maintaining their physical appearance but them having no recollection of their previous life.

The plot revolves around a boy named Tsukasa Mizugaki and his partner Isla, a Giftia, who work for a retrieval agency called 'Terminal Service #1'. The aforementioned duo retrieving Giftias, portraying and experiencing many different situations in which Giftias can be found in society. As the relationship between the two starts to develop and eventually turn into a romantic one, it is revealed that Isla is nearing the end of her lifespan. Knowing this, Tsukasa tries to make Isla as happy as possible in her last few days, only for her to request Tsukasa to deactivate her during their final date.

Below you will find a clip of the ending of the first episode, in which Tsukasa makes his first retrieval.


"I hope that someday, you'll be reunited with the one you cherish" - Isla, whenever she completes a retrieval

This is an excellent example of Tamed Death as described by Philippe Aries because death in this anime is an everyday topic with its own corresponding rituals. The performance issues of Giftias are clear warning signs that one is nearing the end of its lifespan and the retrieval services provided by the agencies are the rituals and preparations one takes before accepting death. Following the deactivation, they can choose to rewrite their Giftia, which is akin to resurrection. I therefore believe that Philippe Aries' concept of a Tamed Death is perfectly recognizable in this anime.

Washington on his Deathbed
Tamed Death

Junius Brutus Stearns (1851). Washington on his Deathbed.

This oil painting by Junius Brutus Stearns depicts George Washington, the first president of the United States, on his deathbed. It reflects one of the death mentalities discussed by Philippe Ariès, namely, the tamed death. 

As the last moments of his life were approaching, Washington was lying in his bed, surrounded by his close ones, among those, his wife Martha, his friends, secretary Tobias Lear and Dr Craik, housemaids, and his valet. The events leading up to his death were unfolding quite vigorously, where Washington was treated by three doctors and has bled four times, he soon realized that his death is near and he accepted it. He said to Dr Craik 'Doctor, I die hard; but I am not afraid to go; I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it; my breath can not last long'. He ordered his last wishes to be fulfilled e.g. choosing one of the two wills he wrote, assigning Martha to burn the remaining one and to be 'decently buried.' Washington knew well the death protocol, and he did not decide to call for a priest. He was prepared for his death and fearlessly passed away. Moreover, as we can see in the painting, there was no excessive display of emotions by anybody in the room, which is characteristic of tamed death.  


Tamed Death

Danse Macabre: the central theme of Medieval Art

Danse Macabre  (or in English: The Dance of Death) emerged as an artistic genre that focused on the representation of death in the Middle Ages. Allegories of Danse Macabre can be seen in Medieval Churches such as the Holy Trinity Church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia or St. Nicholas’ Church in Tallinn, Estonia. The main idea illustrated by these artworks is the universality of death - no matter one's position in life, the Dance of the Death unites all the people. By looking at these paintings it can be noticed that people dance with skeletons, a symbol of the dead. Death is a natural phenomenon that people were familiar with in the Middle Ages. “Memento mori” is the key attitude expressed in this type of paintings: everyone will die, without any exception, thus everyone will get to dance with the death. The concept of dancing with the death evokes the feeling of community, of sharedness and this emotion is enforced by using the metaphor “dance” itself because dance is a unifying action that brings people together. Normally when people dance they feel connected and here the connection is that people share this fate: the fate of dying. This attitude toward death, as Ariès puts it in his book "Western attitudes toward death: from the Middle Ages to the present" coincides with his concept of the “Tamed Death”, the period where the acceptance of death is a normal phenomenon and where death is an everyday thing. In addition, the dance of death is just an artistic interpretation of the coexsistence of the living and of the dead that Ariès mentions.  "In a world as steeped in the supernatural as that of the Round Table, death was a very simple thing." (Ariès, 1976), perhaps the dance of the death can be regarded as a simple public ceremony, where people who are to die join the eternal dance together with the unliving.


Ariès, P. (1976). Western attitudes toward death: From the Middle Ages to the present. London: Marion Boyars.



Exercise for Dying, Emmeline de Mooij, Suns and Stars Project Space
Tamed Death

Emmeline de Mooij (2017) Exercise for Dying

Last year during an event called Huishoudschool (Domestic Labor School) in Amsterdamse Bos, artists Emmeline de Mooij and Giene Steeman performed ‘Exercise for Dying’. A meditative workshop and performance to deal with and to prepare for one’s own death, to restore the experience of human mortality and to bring it back into our daily lives. The audience and participants in this workshop-performance were asked to bring their full vacuum cleaner bag to the scene. The contents of the bag, dust from their homes was used as a tool to provoke a confrontation with mortality. Without words, the participants were invited to engage in the act of covering the artist’s body with their household dust and subsequently extricate the body from the dust by a gentle sweeping and dusting performance. This ritual household act confronts the participants and the artists deeply with their physical and spiritual intolerance for the substance of degradation and decay.

Joseph A. Amato was quoted in the announcement for ‘Exercise for Dying’, from his book, Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible: “dust is found within all things, solid, liquid, or vaporous. With the atmosphere, it forms the envelope that mediates the earth’s interaction with the universe. (…) Dust is everywhere because its source is everything.”

Tamed Death

Requiem - Gregorian chant

This old chant is part of the Roman Catholic ritual that prepares for the burial or cremation of a beloved dead person. This chant, the introit, is sung at the start of the ritual as the coffin enters the church. The history of this chant goes back to the 8th century.

Key word of this chant is 'requiem', which is Latin and means: rest. Death is not seen as something aweful, but as 'rest'. However, not just rest, but eternal rest or 'rest in God'. The chant seems to express a contrast between life and death. Life is chaotic, restless and tiring; in death the restless quest of man comes to an end. This way of thinking is derived from St. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian theologian and philosopher (he died in 430). In one of his books he wrote: "Our heart is restless until it rests in you."

My Death

As ‘my death’ implies, this attitude is more individualistic. Death is about a person’s own identity and preparations for the afterlife must be made during life on earth. The physical life is nothing more but an education for the immortal soul, which shall be weighed during the final Judgment in a battle between good and evil at one’s own deathbed. In this period there was a legitimate fear for purgatory, because it now served as a punishment.

Aries traces this attitude from 1100 onwards.

My Death

Kimberly Perry (2010). If I Die Young

The French historian Philippe Aries published the book Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (1974). In this book he distinguishes the attitudes towards death within four different periods: Tamed Death, My Death, Your Death and the Forbidden Death. These four death mentalities can also be applied to other periods in history and even to the 20th and 21st centuries.

The song above, If I Die Young, by the band The Band Perry is a clear example of the My Death mentality in a contemporary artwork. My death, according to Aries, started in 1100 onwards. It is the death that concerns me, the individual itself. Furthermore, it is when the individual will analyze its balance, its soul, where one's identity will be judged.

In this song, Perry sings about her own death. Throughout the song, it becomes clear that she concludes that if she did die young, she would have been happy with her life, that she is prepared to die. Furthermore, she mentions that she does not desire to see anyone mourning her, especially since she has made peace with her death. Their tears are not worth it, and they should save it for something worse.

“The sharp knife of a short life,

Well I’ve had just enough time

...Gather up your tears, keep 'em in your pocket

Save 'em for a time when you're really gonna need 'em"

These excerpts from the song demonstrate that she analyzed the balance of her life, that even though it was a short one, she is content with her choices. In addition, she sings “and I’ll be wearing white when I come into your kingdom”. This part of the song demonstrates that she believes her soul is pure since white is a color that in the western culture demonstrates purity, and therefore she will go to heaven to meet her creator.

In conclusion, If I Die Young is an example of My Death attitude since it demonstrates that Perry is living her life in a good manner, which will later one lead her to heaven, to be blessed.
My Death

Bernt Notke (1463) Lübeck Dance of Death

In his book Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (1975), French historian Philippe Aries introduced the four stages of death mentalities throughout history.

Dance of death or Danse Macabre (in French) is a medieval concept of portraying death as conquering and equalizing the power of death. Dance of Death paintings were painted to remind people that no matter how rich or poor they were, or no matter how powerful they were, death was inevitable and everyone had the same destination. The danse macabre paintings usually consists of the dead or personification of the dead in all ages, dance along while walking to the graves. Created in 1463 by Bernt Notke, the Lübeck's dance of death shows individuals in all types, from corpses, a lumberjack, a majesty queen and an infant in a cradle marching the same way; celebrating towards the graveyards. Another major thing to notice is that there are personifications of death among the living, arm in arm, they are no different and death will unite them all.

This painting is linked to the attitude of 'my death' era mentioned by Aries. My death attitude is more about the person's own identity and preparation and celebration of the afterlife. In the period of 14th century major deadly events such as  the Hundred Year War in France and the Black Death were epidemic in Europe.

Lübeck's dance of death painting was poorly maintained and had to be replaced with new exact copies in 1701 by Anton Wortmann at St. Mary’s church. Unfortunately, the copies were detroyed during a bombing in 1942. What’s left closest to the original is a black and white photograph of the painting shown above.


My Death

Gregorian Chant - "Dies Irae"

Dies irae”,  or “Day of Wrath” from Latin, is a Gregorian chant, from the 13th century. It is considered a masterpiece of Latin poetry. It could be put down either to Thomas of Celano of the Franciscans (1200 – c. 1265), or to Latino Malabranka Orsini (d. 1294). It is best known as used as a sequence in the Mass for the Dead. The Dies irae was translated in English more than any other language:

Death and nature will stand aghast,
when the creature shall rise again,
to answer before his Judge.

I groan as one guilty,
 while my countenance blushes for my fault:
 O spare thy supplicant, O God!

My prayers are not worthy,
but thou who art good, grant in thy kindness
that I may not burn in the everlasting fire.

These stanzas show how clearly the chant correlated with the theme of the second Death mentality: My Death. This period is when death was associated with the moment of judgement right after someone’s death. During this phase of perception one should think about how they acted during their whole life. People should resist all temptations and do only good, because when they die, they get judged by their deeds. If you did good, you go to Heaven with God. If you did bad, you go straight to Hell with all demons. You should ask God for his forgiveness, because all people have sins that need to be forgiven. This is also what the chant talks about.


My Death

Naraka in Buddhism

According to buddhist culture, people will go to different places after they die. Those who are very kind and helpful will go to the heaven and be immortal. Those who are not too kind or bad will reincarnate into mortal again. Besides, those who committed many wrongs will go to the Naraka to be tortured. The Naraka is divided into eighteen levels. Different levels have different kinds of cruel tortures and duration. Buddhism holds the belief that mortal should behave properly when they are alive and then they will not be sentenced to go to the Naraka to suffer the punishment. This fits with the content of “my  death” as described by Philippe Aries (although his book focuses on Western culture). The whole life of the individual will be judged at the end. So people should reflect on their behaviour from time to time.

The picture shows the guards in the Naraka throw bad beings into a cauldron and fry them in oil, which looks so horrible and painful. When in the Naraka, beings will suffer from these tortures all day long and it is really difficult to come back to the normal reincarnation.

My Death

Jan van Eyck (ca. 1440-1441), The Last Judgement

The Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441) painted a diptych with on the one side the crucifixion, on the other the last judgement. This rather small diptych is meant for private devotion (which fits very well the attitude of 'my death'). The Last Judgement panel on the right can be divided in three areas. On top we see Christ, the crucified and risen and the same time. At the bottom, we see hell: a personification of death spreads its skeletal wings over the fallen and damned and the archangel Michael seems to control the underworld. In the middle we see the dead rise from their graves (left side) and from the sea (right side).

Van Eyck's painting invites to have a close look, to contemplate the rich iconography. And it evokes the question: what about my death, where do I end up? In hell, or near the risen Christ?

Watch also this video:


Your Death

‘Your death’ is characterized by the intolerance of losing a beloved one. The fear of death lies in the fact that people are physically separated from the deceased. However, death is also a desired state in which people are finally reunited again with their lost beloved. The incapability of accepting the death of the other is displayed in the intense mourning and grief shown by those left behind. 

Aries finds this death mentality in several sources from 1700 onwards.

Your Death

Funeral Ceremonies in Lithuania

Even though the 21st century may be recognized as a spectacular death mentality’s period, the current situation of mourning and accepting death in Lithuania marks a significant number of ‘your death’ mentality’s features. Whilst the situation is gradually changing and the perception of death is becoming more similar to the one that is common in the Western Europe, the more conservative part of the society still follows the deeply rooted traditions of long death ceremonies. 

The early days of a Lithuanian funeral are dedicated to the presentation of the deceased in a coffin in a funeral home. During this period family, friends and even acquaintances of the deceased come to say the last goodbye. The coffin is left open throughout the whole three-day ceremony and is only closed the last day before the burial.

The first signs of the ‘your death’ mentality occur in the mourning culture in Lithuania. The reconciliation with death for most people becomes the substantial hardship. The lack of acceptance of death can also be recognized from the long ceremonies of saying goodbye. It takes up to three days of mourning and expressing great grief near the beloved’s coffin.  As Aries has described, ‘certainly the expression of sorrow by survivors is owing to a new intolerance of separation’. It is clear that the death of the other is more feared than the death of oneself. People struggle to let go of the deceased one and usually even after the funeral they gather to celebrate the monthly anniversary of the death and express a yet remaining very grave wound.

Subsequently, this intolerance of separation leads to the memory cult. People in Lithuania use tombs, graves, and cemeteries as signs of the presence of the deceased ones. Additionally, a funeral ceremony is held by the relatives and it usually requires investments in the deceased’s costume and embalming, preparation of the coffin, rent of the room in a funeral house, a place for burial in the cemetery, tombstone, and many other burial services. Throughout the years the cost of the aforementioned ceremony has risen and yet these services and products still remain widely consumed due to the deeply rooted funeral and burial culture in the country. The investment in a funeral ceremony can be seen as a sign of paying tribute to the deceased. 

Overall, regarding the dramatic expression of grief and the long funeral ceremonies, it is clear that regardless of the current period, the funeral situation in Lithuania perfectly depicts the ‘your death’ mentality.

Canova Maddalena Penitente.jpg
Your Death

Antonio Canova (1794-1796). Maddalena Penitente

The Penitent Magdalene,  Antonio Canova's most celebrated religious work, is far less eminent today as it was shortly after its creation (1794-1796)  and first exhibition. Displayed today in the Museo Agostiniano in Genoa – poorly lit and showing consequences of an unimpressive restoration in the late nineteenth century – it is not the imposing and influential work of art it once was.

The statue itself portrays Mary Magdalene mourning over the loss of Jesus. The marble Magdalene is accompanied by a skull and a bronze crucifix. The image is one of intolerable grief. The extreme detail in the pose and the face of Mary only enhance this sense of misery. 

The statue was first comissioned by a Venetian prelate named Guiseppi Pruili. However, in 1808, it was sold to and exhibited at the Salon in the Musée Napoleon in Paris. This is where the Magdalene became exceptionally popular. Its fame at the time can be explained by the religious and political situation of these years. Post-Revolution, and after the Concordat of 1801 had been signed to restore Catholicism in France, this religious image of grief struck home with many of the broken families that had emerged due to the Napoleonic wars. 

This statue is quite fitting to the period of Your Death as described by Ariès. This era was, according to Ariès, one in which death was experienced as something unacceptable and unfamiliar. Therefore, the loss a of a loved one was a difficult and devastating occasion for many. In this context, the scene that the statue depicts was relatable and comforting - and fitting for the prevaillent perception of death at the time. Moreover, we see this image of death as something shocking and horrifying revealing itself in the art of that time through the dramatic depiction of the situations surrounding death. Peaceful paintings or statues regarding death were not often made during this time. Canova's depiction of Magdalene and his eye for detail to express her immense grief, parallel this drama and intensity when it comes to death of an other. 

In conclusion, this artwork gained its massive popularity due to its resemblance to the morality regarding death and the ongoing situations in France at the time it was produced. This reaction and Canova's artistry ensured that, to this day, it is relatable and remains truly one of Canova's most impressive works.


Ariès, P. (1974). Western attitudes toward death: From the Middle Ages to the present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Johns, C.M.S. (2013). Erotic Spirituality and the Catholic Revival in Napoleonic Paris: The Curious History of Antonio Canova’s Penitent Magdalene. Published in: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Volume 42, 2013, pp. 1-20. 

Pollitt, B. Canova, Repentant Magdalene Retrieved from:



Section 80 by Kendrick Lamar Album Cover
Your Death

Keisha's Song, Her Pain - Kendrick Lamar

Keisha’s Song, Her Pain is a song from rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2011 album Section 80.  It is the story of one of Lamar’s female friends who had resorted to prostitution at a young age, and the struggle she had gone through. In an interview with MTV, he confirms that this song contains a true and personal story, like most of the songs on his album. This song is an interesting one to relate back to Philippe Ariès’ Western attitudes toward death: from the Middle Ages to the present (1974). Ariès describes four death mentalities, coherent to specific time periods presented in chronological order. Over time our mentality gradually went from ‘We shall all die’, to one’s own death being central, to putting the death of the other person central, to the ‘Forbidden’ or ‘Hidden’ Death mentality.

In Keisha’s Song, Her Pain Lamar describes another person’s life and struggle that led to a bitter death. It directly relates back to Ariès’ ‘Your Death’, putting the another’s death central; there is fear of separation or death of the other. Keisha’s story and death are central subjects to commemorate her and to show how unfair life was for her. An example is the end of his last verse, and at the same time her story, in the following way:

“And in her heart, she hate it there but in her mind, she made it where, nothing really matters, still she hit the back seat and caught a knife inside the bladder, left for dead, raped in the street. Keisha's song.”

The “Your Death” mentality  is also present in another way as Lamar shows with the lyrics following up Keisha’s story as described in three verses. He raps: “My little sister eleven, I looked her right in the face, the day that I wrote this song, sat her down and pressed play.” He shows here that he also wrote this song for his sister as a kind of warning and lesson about how life can go if you make certain decisions. He does not want his sister to make bad decisions or end up dead like Keisha and tries to prevent this by advising her. In every way, Kendrick Lamar’s song is a perfect example of the western attitude/mentality of centralizing and commemorating the other person’s death;  and fearing the other’s death.

Your Death

Albert Küchler (1834). Correggio's Death

''Correggio's Death", a painting by Albert Küchler inspired by a tragedy by Adam Oehlenschläger, can be used to solidify Philippe Aries’ theory on the four different kinds of mentalities upon death. In this painting, a woman bends towards her deceased husband, mourning his death. This behaviour is exemplary of the ‘’Your death’’ mentality. In contrast with mentalities that came before, death was not accepted anymore. Death is now seen as a break in life, something dramatic and enormously devastating. The woman on the painting is seen holding her husband, without wanted to let go. Both the woman and the boy in the Küchler’s work act wretched and mournful, instead of accepting. The your death mentality also includes the ambitions to keep remains of deceased ones. People where not able to let go of the deceased, and would forever mourn their absence.  

With the introduction of this mentality also came the centralised cemeteries. Instead of being buried around the church, people where now brought to big open parks in which deceased loved ones could be honoured and remembered by bringing thoughts, prayers and flower. The big wooden cross displayed in this work emphasise the cemeteries and graveyards used to commemorate the dead.  

Your Death

William Shakespeare, 'Romeo and Juliet'

Although it was written earlier, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ depicts a death mentality typical for the period after the 18th century. Aries named it “Thy Death” (“Your Death”) because it marked a big shift in attitudes – the most dramatic and frightening aspect of death became being separated from a loved one.

In the past, friends and relatives gathered around one’s deathbed to perform rituals, but it was done in a still, collected, banal way. Death was something accepted passively by the by-standers of the dying person while he awaited his ending, focused on his own experience and concerned about his placement after the Last Judgements.

After the 18th century however, death was seen as a break, as a loss of a beloved one, and people started experiencing it as something devastating, as a reason for mourning. The passionate expression of sorrow by survivors was a sign of the newly developed intolerance of separation. You could now encounter crying, praying, gesticulating and all other sorts of manifestation of grief around one’s deathbed.  Friends and relatives of the deceased also wanted to keep the memory of their lost close one alive, which explained the emergence of personalized tombs and park cemeteries. Someone’s burial place became a sight to visit if you wanted to express your sadness or to show respect to his memory.

From the 16th to the 18th century, death was also associated with love in art and literature. It was romanticized, admired for its beauty. It was tragic, but also a desired state in which you can be reunited with your lost beloved ones.

The death attitude depicted in the ending of Romeo and Juliet’s story is a combination of all of the aforementioned aspects. Firstly, Juliet’s pretended death caused much sorrow in her relatives and her lovers. They placed her body in the family tomb, which was visited by both Paris and Romeo in the night. But while the first one was there to mourn over her and place some flowers on her grave, the second man was there with the intention to kill himself. The pain of losing his lover was too unbearable for him to continue life without her, and his own death did not seem frightening if it meant being with her again. When Juliet wakes up, she discovers that Romeo is dead and then expresses the same sorrow he did earlier. For her as well, being separated from a loved one is more frightening than dying, so she chooses to take her own life as well and reunite with him in death.

This romantic scene, set in a tomb, displays the death mentality of ‘Your Death’.

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Forbidden Death

The 'forbidden death' or 'denial of death' transformed death into a taboo. People are ashamed of dying and see it as something dirty and as a disease, e.g. the body is deteriorating and needs to be cured. This mentality has led to the medicalization and denial of death and changed the surroundings in which people die. Death no longer occurs in the private of people their own bedrooms, but in elderly homes and hospitals that are far away from the young and living. The shame emphasizes that life should only consist out of happiness and therefor the condition of dying is ignored till the very end, not only for self-preservation but also to protect the community.

Forbidden Death

Why It's Illegal To Die in Longyearbyen

Philippe Aries was a French medievalist and author of various books. Most of his well known work is about western attitudes towards death and as a result, he categorized death into four attitudes. One of these attitudes of death mentalities is known as the ‘forbidden death’, or the denial of death. This is the phenomenon where dying and death itself have been transformed into a taboo. In some parts of the world, the acts of forbidden death are still very much alive. Reasons for this include people being ashamed of dying as it can and is associated with a disease due to the human body deteriorating and needing to be healed or even cured. Because of this mentality towards death, the denial of it has changed the environments in which people die as it is no longer a private act but an act that occurs in public institutions such as hospitals, elderly homes, remote villages and the like. These actions put a huge emphasis on the fact that death is a taboo and that life should only consist of happiness and good things, because death is quite the opposite. As a result, the act of dying itself is ignored until the end in order to protect the community from being humiliated, as well as from possible diseases.

While looking up articles about forbidden death, one stuck out in particular. There is a remote, arctic town in Longyearbyen, Norway where dying is 'forbidden' due to environmental reasons. In fact, it’s illegal and has been since 1950 and it is because Longyearbyen is so cold that bodies do not even decompose in cemeteries due to permafrost interfering with the decomposition process and allowing for dead bodies to stay completely intact in cemeteries.

In fact, the corpses have stayed so intact that scientists have even been able to retrieve live samples of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in the buried bodies. Longyearbyen is home to only 2,000 people and to prevent the dead to be buried, the local authorities have closed the cemeteries. People who are going to die, are taken to the Norwegian mainland .

The system is so developed and organized that the government is able to assist those who are dying, as well as their families in various ways to make the process easier. Funerals don’t work the way they are supposed to and neither do births, as women who are about to give birth have to leave for a small hospital in the mainland in advance of their due dates to ensure their babies are healthy before they can return to Longyearbyen. Although dying is 'forbidden' in Longyearbyen, citizens are able to apply to have their cremated remains (or cremated remains of their loved ones) put into the ground in Longyearbyen,  although it does require approval from the government.


Death and Dying. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Matthews, L. (2018, March 14). There's a Remote Norwegian Town Where You're Not Allowed to Die. Retrieved from

Benedictus, L. (2015, September 30). Where in the world is it illegal to die? Retrieved from

Peters, L. (2018, April 19). It's Illegal To Die In This Norwegian Town, And The Reason Is Straight Out Of A Zombie Movie. Retrieved from

Forbidden Death

The crematorium as non-place

From the late 1960s onwards we see an increase in the number of cremations in the Netherlands. This led to new buildings which reflected the death mentality of that period: the forbidden death. Most crematoria of the late 1960s-90s are business-like buildings, with a clear function: to facilitate a short ceremony and to burn the dead body. The crematorium design in the late 1960s-90s focused on the utilitarian process of burning a corpse and on efficient routes through the building in order to avoid mixing of congregations. The mourners had to exit the building through a different door in order to make way for the next group. The crematoria in this period used the ‘one door in and one door out’ routing. In the Netherlands, it was and is custom to have a reception after the cremation ritual with coffee, cake or other refreshments. The presence of coffee rooms added an extra element to the routing since the time spent in the coffee room was not easily controllable by the crematorium staff. Mirjam Klaassens and Peter Groote described the development of crematoria in the Netherlands (in: Emotion, Identity and Death, edited by D. Davies and C.-W. Park, 2012) and they wrote: "Often, the architecture was so downgraded that it resulted in the creation of places without any symbolic value or meaning, or any sense of place. Crematoria turned out to be anonymous suburban non-places, to use the label proposed by Auge (1995). They were almost indistinguishable from other utilitarian building types." (p. 152) Klaassens and Groote characterize the crematoria in this period as indistinctive and unemotional buildings, and as an effective negation of death.

Spectacular Death

The ‘spectacular death ‘ refers to the mindset of this age as being obsessively interested in aspects involving death and at the same time preferring to keep death at a safe distance. Through the use of media and the Internet people are more exposed to death than ever, since death is being used as an instrument for political and entertainment reasons in order to provoke, draw attention or increase sales. Another characteristic is the re-ritualization of death. Ceremonies and rituals surrounding funerals are being personalized by re-inventing traditions, practices and beliefs.  These developments have also led to more specialized academic studies surrounding death and dying.

This fifth phase has not been described by Philippe Aries, but is proposed by Michael Jacobsen for 1990s onwards. Is 'Spectacular death' a good and useful description of the death mentality of our era?

Spectacular Death

The Glitter Coffin Company

The spectacular death attitude, as described above, is a typical attitude towards death in our day and age. Something I came across online the other day, perfectly illustrates this attitude: The Glitter Coffin Company (see video above).
The possibility of buying a coffin of choice, is nothing new. The coffin industry was actually created because of the United States civil war which lasted from 1861 to 1865; so many coffins were needed for the soldiers, that the Americans started to mass-produce them.

Yet, the commercialization of death is actually a recent change which is part of the spectacular death attitude. Definitely in this age of digitalization, and with the shift towards online marketing, we can see this commercialization of death take place. I was simply scrolling through my Facebook timeline, when this video of actual glitter coffins (I could not believe it) sparked my attention. In the last decades, death has been mediatized, both for political and entertainment purposes. This is an example of that mediatization, since the company uses social media as a marketing tool to sell these rather controversial coffins.
But why is it possible for a company such as The Glitter Coffin Company to even come up with a concept like this, and actually potentially be successful in its business?The reason for that is the re-ritualization of death, which is another aspect of the spectacular death attitude typical for our time. Ceremonies and rituals that revolve around death are being personalized by re-inventing parts of practices, traditions and beliefs.

While writing this, I randomly thought of another business concept that I once saw online, which fits this re-ritualization, personalization and commercialization aspects of death and funerals perfectly: ‘The Living Urn.’ This website has come up with a new idea which allows people to bury their ashes in a pot with a young tree. With its roots in the ashes of the deceased person, and with the help of some special additives, the tree grows into a large memory tree over time. Personally I find it a beautiful re-invention of our funeral traditions.

Spectacular Death

Michael Jackson: Commercial Resurrection

The death of Michael Jackson has been a prime example for the mindset of the “Spectacular Death” , the fifth and latest phase of attitudes towards death. The mindset revolves around being in an age where society is interested in death while also keeping a safe distance from it. Another important aspect of this phase is that the invention of internet and new communication devices/types made people more exposed to death. Death became an item of commercialization and entertainement, provoking and looking for attention to increase sales.

In order to get a better understanding of why Michael Jackson's death is such a good example we will analyse what happened after his death.

The use of media and internet

The death of Michael Jackson caused social media and internet to literally explode, sites as google even had a hard time keeping up and had many error pages about Michael Jackson due to the amount of searches about his death. Some of the statistics for example were:

  • Web usage went to 4.2m visitors per minute (normally 2million).
  • 50% of top searches were related to Michael Jackson.
  • Mobile searches spiked to their largest numbers ever and 5 out of 20 searches were related to Michael Jackson.
  • 9 out of 10 popular topics were about Michael Jackson on twitter, with a total of 23% of all tweets dedicated to him.
  • Provoking and attention drawing media also quickly turned their heads towards content that wasn’t as respecting to his legacy by causing a lot of discussion about: (1.) accusations of sexual behaviour in his past; (2.) conspiracy theories about the death causes (e.g. Doctor killed him).

Increased sales

In the year 2010 Michael Jackson as brand already made a billion USD in a mix of: Film/Tv, Music Publishing, Licensing/Touring. A quick conclusion of this is:

  • Film/tv: Sony pictures bought the rehearsals of the last tour for 60 million from AEG, this same content was the base of the documentary of “This is it” that grossed 72 million at the US Box office. The same “This is it” made over 43 million with DVD sales.
  • Music publishing: Jackson bought his share in Sony/atv for 90 million, but the worth of the company had a jump after his death and so the worth of his share became 800 million.

Change in ritual and ceremony

A Memorial service was held in the Staples Centre in LA and was attended by 17,500 famous people and close contacts of Michael Jackson. The whole service was broadcast around the world and watched by around 2.5 billion people. Another important part of the service was the performance of many famous artists that sang his songs as tribute, an uncommon thing to do in other phases of death (songs of the one whose death instead of songs of other people).

Spectacular Death

David Bowie

‘Spectacular death’ is a death that has been transformed into a spectacle, something we can view from a safe distance but do not experience directly, we are spectators and bystanders (Jacobsen, 2016).

The death of David Bowie is an example of spectacular death.  David Bowie died on January 10th, 2016 after suffering from liver cancer for 18 months. He died two days after the release of his album called ‘Blackstar’. Bowie’s death was very unexpected for fans since he had kept his illness private (Ellis-Petersen, 2017).

Just a few hours after his death, memorials were created around the world. One of the memorials was in Brixton, an area in London where Bowie was born. Thousands of fans layed flowers and tributes at a mural, which street artist James Cochran painted Bowie’s cover from his album ‘Aladdin Sane’ (Peters, 2016). 

The time of spectacular death is characterized by the desire to publicly celebrate and remember the person who died (Jacobsen, 2016). Bowie’s death was all over the news, celebrities were tweeting about it and the media turned his death in to a spectacle. With the help of media attention, the aforementioned memorial became a worldwide phenomenon. Because of the media attention that has been given to his death, his death became commercialised. This lead to an increase in the sales of his albums and clothing stores selling David Bowie t-shirts as a fashion item.


Ellis-Petersen, H. (2017). David Bowie did not know he was dying until final few months. Retrieved from

Jacobsen, M. H. (2016). "Spectacular Death": Proposing a New Fifth Phase to Philippe Ariès’s Admirable History of Death. Humanities, 5(2), 1-20. DOI: 10.3390/h5020019

Peters, D. (2016). David Bowie mural painted by Australian artist used as memorial site. Retrieved from

Spectacular Death

Brian Yorkey, 13 Reasons Why

Today, death is no longer invisible, it has come out of the taboo zone and confronts us in ways unimaginable before. It is seen not as something extraordinary – it has rather become a spectacle. For this reason, Jacobsen (2016) has proposed the term “spectacular death” as characterizing the current attitude towards death, dying and mourning. 

It is a tendency highly visible in one of the dimensions of “spectacular death” – the “mediated/mediatized visibility of death”. Although we do not encounter death, we are exposed to its appearance through media. The TV show ’13 Reasons Why’ is a perfect example of that in more than one way.  It is a television series which revolves completely around the story of a dead girl and it is currently second in popularity on the online movie database website IMDB. 

The series tells the story of a young girl who commits suicide, but before that records audio tapes with the 13 reasons for her decision and arranges that the people involved all get to hear them.  This way, she succeeds in turning her own death into a phenomenon. But even those not familiar with the tapes are fascinated with the tragic event as well. In the opening scene of the pilot episode of the show, we see how her high school locker has been turned into a memorial site, and how two girls pose and take a selfie with it, discussing how they should add a hashtag with the words ‘never forget’ when they post it online afterwards. This also adds to what Jacobsen calls the “re-ritualization of death”, another dimension of “spectacular death”. The traumatizing and unjust death of a young girl has led to the construction of new rituals for mourning.

The plot of the TV show depicts how in our contemporary society death is no longer a taboo. The devastating event of a young girl killing herself provokes a big discussion in the high school she went to, with posters containing supportive quotes being placed on the walls, and students being more encouraged to openly talk about their problems. Furthermore, the people who get to listen to the tapes immerse even deeper into the topic of death. On top of that, the girl’s parents start a lawsuit against the school and start digging into the circumstances around the tragic event. Thus, nobody in the community can escape the thought of death.

Spectacular Death

Buzzfeed Unsolved

First, we have discussed Ariès’ work on the four different attitudes towards death in western culture. His work however, was first published in 1974, and in 45 years a lot of changes have taken place, of course. Typical for the last decades and central to this item, is the attitude we call Spectacular death. To clarify the Spectacular death attitude, I decided to take a closer look at a YouTube series called Buzzfeed Unsolved. It’s a popular series since the first episode was launched in 2016. Currently, the show consists of a few seasons, it has a total of 62 videos that last approximately 20 to 30 minutes; the series has 44,806,855 views in total (some videos have a few million views), based on the data retrieved on May 23, 2018.

Buzzfeed Unsolved discusses an Unsolved case of death per episode. This can be anything from an unsolved case of murder to the unexplained deaths that occurred in so-called haunted places. The hosts play an important role, as one of them is a thorough sceptic, whilst the other one leans more towards believing in ghosts and the unknown. Despite the difference in their attitude,the spectacular death attitude shines through in every way with both of them, as they are both interested and determined to try and figure out the unsolved cases of death, regardless of their beliefs.

That brings me to another point that clarifies the spectacular death attitude. The concept of the series is based on our fascination with death and unsolved cases. Whether viewers believe in supernatural things or not, the titles alone spark interest in many people. The death cases that Buzzfeed unsolved uses for their videos are, often, ‘spectacular’  themselves. “The Demonic Bellaire House”, ”The Chilling Exorcism of Anneliese Michel”, and The Mysterious Disappearance Of The Sodder Children” are some titles that clarify the point I am making.
Our fascination remains however, just a distant fascination. The watchers are interested in the peculiar death stories, yet are safely watching these cases from their comfortable couch at home. It is a typical thing for our time; death has been mediatized, and commercialized. It sounds odd like that, yet it has become a normal thing in the world of media to use death for entertainment purposes or political reasons. We are curious and interested, and yet we still rather keep death at a distance.


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