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9-08-2015, 14:59

The life cycle: death

The very last stage of life was, of course, dying. The engraving by Isaac at the beginning of this chapter ends with a deathbed, and Death, shown as a skeleton in the foreground, presides over the right half of the staircase as individuals decline from the prime of life. Death was much less associated with old age in the early modern period than it is today, however. About one-quarter of children died before they were one, and another quarter before they were ten. Thus people who survived to adulthood had already lived through the most deadly stage of life. The frequency of death at an early age did not make people inured to grief, but did make having a “good death” a matter for all ages. Religious texts taught the “art of dying” ( ars moriendi ), instructing readers in how to make amends for their sins, avoid the devil’s snares, and prepare to meet God. Often illustrated with woodcuts of the “dance of death” in which Death leads people from all social ranks, they recommended making a will to dispose of earthly property, and also to make bequests for prayers or memorial services. Mothers were expected to instruct their children in how to have a good death, and to provide an example and spiritual model in their own deaths. Stories of good deaths were the subject of funeral sermons, which were gathered in collections and published as edifying reading. A particularly good death might merit a whole book by itself. For example, Phillip Stubbes, an English Puritan, details the short life and early death of his young wife in A Crystal Glass for Christian Women (1591), which went through twenty-four editions in the decades after it was fi rst published. For Christians before the Protestant Reformation, having a good death meant going through a series of religious rituals. The individual or the family called for a priest when they thought the hour of death was near, and he brought with him a number of objects and substances regarded as having power over death and the sin related to it: holy water to be sprinkled on and around the dying person, holy oil for anointing him or her; a censer with incense to be waved around; the priest’s stole for the dying person to touch; a crucifi x with an image of the dying Christ to remind him or her of Christ’s own agony and death; lighted candles to drive back the darkness both fi guratively and literally, often placed in the person’s hand as he or she was just about to take a last breath (or “give up the ghost” as the phrase still goes); the communion host consecrated by the priest during the fi nal ritual of Extreme Unction and then consumed by the dying person. Once the person had died, the body was washed – usually by female family members or women who made their living this way – put in special clothing or a sack of plain cloth, and buried within a day or two. Family and friends joined in a funeral procession, again with candles, holy water, incense, and a crucifi x, and marked by the ringing of church bells; sometimes extra women were hired so that the mourning and wailing were especially loud. The procession carried the body into the church, where there were psalms, prayers, and a funeral mass, and then to a consecrated space for burial, the wealthy sometimes inside the church – in the walls, under the fl oor, or under the building itself in a crypt – but most often in the churchyard or a cemetery close by. As cities grew, cemeteries were set up outside the city walls to provide more space. Individual graves did not have permanent markers, and as churchyards were used over hundreds of years, they became full of skeletal remains. As gravediggers dug a hole for the newest body, they often moved the bones they encountered to a special small building, called a charnel house or an ossuary, where they were available for public view. Standing at the graveside, the priest asked for God’s grace on the soul of the deceased, and also asked that soul to “rest in peace.” This fi nal request was made not only for the benefi t of the dead, but also for that of the living. The souls of the dead were widely believed to return to earth. Mothers who had died in childbed might come back seeking to take their children with them. Executed criminals might seek to gain revenge on those who had brought them to justice; for this reason they were buried under the gallows, or at a crossroads, which put them permanently under the sign of the cross. Suicides, who were truly “unquiet souls” and the ultimate “bad death,” were also buried at a crossroads, sometimes with a stake through the body to make sure it did not wander. The souls of everyday people might also seek help from surviving family members in achieving their fi nal salvation. If the individual had not provided for this in his or her will, family members hired priests to say memorial masses on anniversaries of the death, especially one week, one month, and one year afterward; large churches had a number of side altars, so that many masses could be going on at one time. Learned theologians sometimes denied that souls actually returned, and beginning in the twelfth century they increasingly emphasized the idea of purgatory, a place where souls on their way to heaven went after death to make amends for their earthly sins. (Those on their way to hell went straight there.) Purgatory is distinct from limbo, a place where the souls of unbaptized infants and noble pagans went after death, where they would remain permanently in a state of what the church termed “natural happiness” though excluded from the “beatifi c vision” of heaven. Souls safely in purgatory did not wander the earth, but they could still benefi t from earthly activities, for memorial masses, prayers, and donations made in their name might shorten their time in purgatory and hasten their way to heaven. When it was fi rst discussed, purgatory was a rather neutral place, unpleasant largely because one was separated from God, but by the fi fteenth century it had acquired the fi re and brimstone of hell. The pain of souls in purgatory could be eased by prayers and masses, and also by purchasing or earning indulgences, documents that reduced the need for earthly penance or lessened time in purgatory in exchange for service or a donation to the church. Thus whether on the earth or in purgatory, the dead required things from the living, for death did not sever family obligations and connections. Protestants denounced the selling of indulgences, rejected both purgatory and limbo as unbiblical, and denied that the living could do anything to assist the souls of the dead, whose destination was determined by God. Requiem masses were abolished and deathbed rituals were shortened and simplifi ed, though family members were encouraged to remain with the dying so that they would not face death alone. Protestants were still concerned with having a “good death,” however, and commemorated the deceased through lengthy funeral sermons and epitaphs, elaborate monuments, and generous donations to the poor. The living also had obligations to the dead among Muslims and Jews. In both groups, deceased people were to be buried quickly, with special prayers said by mourners and family members. Muslim funeral practices involved washing the body, covering it completely with a cloth, and then carrying it to the burial ground by foot in a funeral procession; all Muslim men who saw a procession were to join it. Muslims said prayers and fasted on behalf of the dead, and maintained a brief period of official mourning. The Qur’an promises an eternal paradise with flowing rivers to “those who believe and do good deeds” (Qur’an, 4:57), and a hell of eternal torment to those who do not. Jewish funerals also involved prayers and readings from Scripture, with the body covered and treated respectfully. After a death, family members observed specified periods of mourning, with the normal activities of daily life curtailed. Every day for eleven months after a death and every year after that on the anniversary of the death, a son of the deceased was to recite Kaddish, a special prayer of praise and glorification of God. Judaism emphasized this life more than an afterlife, so that beliefs about what happens to the soul after death were more varied; the very righteous might go directly to a place of spiritual reward, but most souls went first to a place of punishment and purification generally referred to as Gehinnom. After a period that does not exceed twelve months, the soul ascends to the world to come; those who were completely wicked during their lifetime might simply go out of existence, or continue in an eternal state of remorse.

 

 

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