Death in England: An Illustrated HistoryBMJ 2000; 321 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7262.710/a (Published 16 September 2000) Cite this as: BMJ 2000;321:710
Eds Peter C Jupp, Clare Gittings
Manchester University Press, £19.99, pp 304
ISBN 0 7190 5811 2
When I was a child in primary school one of the hymns we used to sing had, as part of the chorus, the words: “When the death shades round us gather, Teach, oh, teach us how to die.” It is a measure of the rapid change in our societal attitudes to death in the intervening 25 years that such a hymn is unlikely to be found in a modern hymnbook for children.
In previous centuries, before the advances of modern medicine, there was a much greater intimacy with death, though death and grief were just as difficult for people to negotiate. The inscriptions on Victorian children's gravestones are as heartrending as those on 20th century memorials. In the past, however, higher infant mortality and shorter life expectancy meant that death was more familiar.
Doctors are a peculiar community in modern Britain in that—along with the clergy, undertakers, and gravediggers—we have intimate and daily dealings with death. To some, death is fascinating; to others, it is part and parcel of the job; and some find it abhorrent and something to be avoided. In my own specialty, where death is inevitable, if a patient can die in peace and with dignity then I have done my job well. What doctors cannot escape is the fact that death presents them with a mirror of their own mortality.
Death in England has a wide remit—to tell the story of the history of death in English culture from prehistory to the present, finishing with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The story presents problems in the earlier chapters, in that there is little or no written evidence and much of the narrative is based on supposition from archaeological remains. The story becomes richer as time goes on and the written and visual records become more prominent.
The book suffers in that it restricts itself to England and does not take in the attitudes and practices of the other three nations that make up these islands; the rich Celtic traditions associated with death are largely ignored.
Still, it is a remarkable collaboration and a magnificent piece of scholarship. The research is detailed and meticulous but still accessible to the general reader, and it is sumptuously illustrated. It may not be everyone's idea of a gentle bedtime read, but it will be of interest to anyone who wants to understand the complex patchwork of attitudes and feelings towards death, grief, and loss. That might include you, doctor.