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Our ancestors openly discussed death - we should too


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Whenever I think of death my first thought is of my History module in Death. My lecturer silently walked into the room and proclaimed: "rule one of life: we're all going to die. Accept it and move on."

Frank Holl

'I am the Resurrection and the Life', Frank Holl, 1872

By the end of the twelve weeks I had era-envy of the Victorians. They celebrated death in a way that hasn't been seen since the start of World War One in 1914. Granted, they did on occasion go too far (just Google 'Death Photography' to be suitably freaked out), but ultimately they were not scared of their impending fates. They accepted that, rich or poor, no one could cheat death, so why not make it a good one?

The business of death was a major economic stimulant back then. Jewellery made with the hair of the deceased, black-bordered stationary, paid mourners, undertakers knew how to work the public. And if it wasn't industry installing tradition, it was the parents who read death poetry to their children and the families that gathered to watch relatives die in their living rooms.

A 'good death' could pack out a house in poorer districts. Changing opinions in the early 20th Century, alongside rising costs and large numbers of overseas deaths experienced during World War One, led to death traditions fading until they became as we view them today: out of place and not palatable.

From a 21st Century perspective, it all seems very bleak and done in bad taste. It's hard to imagine that these were the same ancestors who cemented the stiff upper lip stereotype, refusing to discuss intimate matters. We have always looked at the Victorian period as revolutionary, inventive but, at the same time, highly supressed and frustrated on account of this. But is that really a fair assertion?

On the surface it seems weird to think people would have their coffins made whilst they were still alive, but then our great, great Grandfathers would have equally looked at us as backward creatures. Casually discussing puerile topics on the street such as Tinder exploits would have been highly frowned upon.

Queen Victoria's daughters in mourning

Queen Victoria's five daughters (Alice, Helena, Beatrice, Victoria and Louise) mourning the death of Prince Albert, photographed by William Bambridge, 1862

When was the last time you frankly talked about death? Not just the religious afterlife, but how you want to die, the wording on your gravestone, how you want to be remembered? These were common conversations some 125 years ago.

When was the last time you received a letter with a black border, or saw someone walking down the street dressed in black crape? Nowadays someone in similar attire may attract stares or worse. Back then black held a higher regard in society. A widow in a crape dress was not expected to attend public gatherings or receive visitors until she was ready. It was an unwritten law of societal etiquette.

Nowadays we'll talk about an action designed to create life, but are scared to talk about the other end of it? We will talk about how we want to spend our money here and now, but not plan how our loved ones will pay the costs when the account is dry? Sounds pretty weird to me.

We've gone from one century which celebrated death but wouldn't openly talk about sex to another which celebrates sex but refuses to discuss death. And we see the Victorians as uptight and ourselves as liberated? What wishful thinking. Sure, we're politically liberated, but as individuals we've never been more isolated and suppressed. At least our ancestors had the guts to openly discuss the inevitable.

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