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Prof. Mirjam de Baar: ‘Death is becoming less of a taboo’

12 October 2010
photograph Mirjam de Baar
Prof. Mirjam de Baar

According to Mirjam de Baar, Associate Professor in the History of Christianity, University of Groningen, it seems that death is becoming less of a taboo subject. ‘But people are still frightened by it. Death is something that we will never be able to accept, but we are making it more and more controllable’, claims De Baar.

In 1977, the Frenchman Philippe Ariès published his now classic study The Hour of Our Death, a wide-ranging survey of death, burial and mourning over a thousand years. De Baar: ‘He shows that our problematic relationship with death is not something that remains constant over time, but is largely determined by culture and history.’ Ariès identified five phases (or models) in the way in which people in the Western world deal with death. Whereas death was still ‘tame’ in the Middle Ages’, by the 20th century it had become ‘wild’.

Return to tame phase

‘We now appear to have arrived in a sixth phase’, says De Baar. ‘It is a post-Christian phase in which man, not the church, is central. It seems as if we are returning to the tame phase’. One of the signs is the enormous number of new, free rituals surrounding death. ‘Just take a look on the internet at the number of people who are offering their services as ritual counsellors. Some are still connected to a church community, but many are not.’

Media attention

Media attention is another sign. ‘Take programmes such as Over mijn lijk (‘Over My Dead Body’), in which the presenter talks to young people who know that they are going to die. The programme follows them over a period of time to see how they prepare themselves for it. The programme has high viewing figures – especially for a target group that we assume doesn’t want to concern itself with death.’

Commercial aspects also play a role. ‘Many funeral insurers try to gear their advertising to young people.’ Yarden, for example, asked ‘Wat maakt jouw uitvaart uniek?’ (‘What will make your funeral unique?’). And on the Monuta website you can make a film of your ideal funeral. ‘Obviously there are commercial motives behind this. They want to persuade young people to become funeral-insurance customers. Yet this is a different, “tamer” way of dealing with death.’

From priest to doctor

The turning point came after the Second World War. ‘You see that, certainly from the 1960s onwards, the church began to lose its monopoly in dealing with death and the rituals that surround it. It was doctors rather than clerics who attended the dying. Increasingly, death took place in hospital rather than at home. Yet hospital is a place where death is kept at a distance. You go there to get better, not to die.’

Consequently, people are not confronted with death until later in life. Medical advances have more or less banished death from our daily lives. There was a turning point in the 1980s, when young people began to die of AIDS in the prime of life. ‘This was one of the things that probably led us to look at death in a different way, and this process is still evident today.’

The individual in search of rituals

Death is being made more and more controllable again. De Baar: ‘Individualization in society is playing an important role in this. People are searching out the rituals that appeal to them. There is an increasing tendency for a wake or viewing to be held at the family home, for example, This means that friends and family have more time to pay their last respects. The ritual is controlled until the very last moment. That is very much in line with the “tame death” model.’

Curriculum Vitae

Mirjam de Baar (Rotterdam, 1960) studied History at Utrecht University. In 2004 she was awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen. She is Associate Professor of the History of Christianity, and professor by special appointment (endowed by the Zwingli Bond) of the History and Principles of Unitarianism. She is also Vice Dean, Education Officer and programme director for the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.

Note for the press

For more information: Mirjam de Baar, tel. +31 (0)50 363 45 90, e-mail: mirjam.de.baar rug.nl

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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