From my miserable historical-fiction reading, I am exceedingly grateful to be living in this century. This is how stories used to go, by the way:
Once upon a time, everybody died.
And I mean everybody. No one was spared. From the moment babies drew breath, they were ticking time bombs. To quote Epictetus, "As you kiss your son good night, whisper to yourself, 'He may be dead in the morning.'" (Got that one from Resilience.)
Meaning, the idea that infants are matter-of-factly thriving well into adulthood is a gift we should be merrily celebrating.
Let it be known that I do not wish to be flippant regarding death. Yet we seem to have an unhealthy approach to the matter when those who have lived long, full, spectacular lives are still clung to frantically by their loved ones, their inevitable ends gruesomely extended.
I once heard from a woman the beautiful tale of her father's passing. He refused to go to the hospital or a home; she cared for him under her own roof. He died holding her hand, smiling.
Deborah Lutz's article says it all: "See Death as a Triumph, Not a Failure."
The Victorians looked at death differently than we do now.
The Victorians recognized that death’s presence was woven into the texture of life, giving that life one of its essential meanings.Religion, of course, played a role in this attitude. Evangelical revivals early in the 19th century reinvigorated the tradition of the good death, in which God called believers to him.
There is even a Talmudic example, perhaps, of "death's presence giving life meaning":
At the wedding feast of Mar the son of Ravina, the sages present turned to Rav Hamnuna Zuti and requested: "Let master sing for us." Most probably to the surprise of those present, who expected a cheery song or jovial ditty, Rav Hamnuna Zuti complied with a mournfully lament: "Woe to us that we are destined to die! Woe to us that we are destined to die!"
As for "the good death," consider Beth's demise in Little Women. A triumph indeed.
By the beginning of the 20th century, however, these views of the dead body began to change. Doctors and scientists acquired a deeper understanding of bacteria and disease; death became medicalized. God hadn’t called the individual to him; rather, a malady had overtaken the body. Rather than dying at home, the sick were carted off to hospitals.
In addition, fewer people believed in the afterlife. No longer a triumph, death became a failure — of the physician’s skill, of the patient’s will. It was to be avoided at all costs. The mass death of the Great War, which left so many bodies missing, exploded or rotting on the ground, further undermined the view of the corpse as a meaningful stage of life. Cremation grew in popularity as a way to “cleanse” with fire the last shameful disintegration.
What we have lost is not only a savoring of ephemerality, but also an appreciation of the way that time marks the body. We try too hard to keep the terminally ill alive because we can’t admit to finality. . .
. . . the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s lament in the 1930s about death still rings true. By avoiding the sight of the dying, he felt, one misses the moment when the meaning of a life is completed and illuminated in its ending. The denial of death then leads to the demise of the art of storytelling. He called his contemporaries “dry dwellers of eternity” because they “live in rooms that have never been touched by death.”
We are not immune, us now liberated Jews. We think now the same way—stay alive, no matter the cost. Even though Rebbe's maidservant was praised for ending his suffering.