War and death, grief and mourning in modern britain

David Cannadine

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

81 Scopus citations


The history of death in the Anglo-Saxon world during the modern period seems to be well established, at least in outline. The surveys of Ariès and Stannard, combined with the sociological studies of Gorer and Feifel, and the psychological investigations of Lifton and Olson, add up to an impressively uniform view.1 During the nineteenth century, so the argument runs, western society was obsessed with death, whereas sex was virtually ignored. At a time of unprecedentedly high death rates, children were introduced to death-their own, their siblings’ or their parents’-at an early age. The ceremonial of mourning and the ostentation of cemeteries reached new heights of extravagance: death, grief and bereavement were integral parts of life. But during the last eighty years or so, the position has been exactly reversed. Sex, formerly the taboo subject par excellence, has now been brought out into the open, while death, once the centre of attention, has ‘become shameful and forbidden’. Patients now die alone and in hospital, instead of at home, surrounded by loving families, as in former times. In England, funerals are now perfunctory in the extreme-an attempt to deny death rather than come to terms with it. And in America, the same prevailing attitude has led to that extraordinary charade of morticians, caskets, embalming and ‘Beautiful Memory Pictures’ so hilariously sent up by Evelyn Waugh and devastatingly exposed by Jessica Mitford.2 What was once commonplace has become forbidden; while what was once forbidden has become commonplace. In so far as the history of the western world is the history of the bedroom, the love-bed has replaced the death-bed as the central object of interest and attention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMirrors of Mortality
Subtitle of host publicationSocial Studies in the History of Death
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages56
ISBN (Electronic)9781136810619
ISBN (Print)0905118677, 9780415618601
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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