While various types of medical/religious practice had long attempted to prolong life, the emphasis of these efforts beginning during this period was placed on forestalling death.
Views of Death in the Modern Era
The trends that began in the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods continued into the modern era, and though the increased rationalism and emphasis on the scientific method and imperial fact served society well in many ways, this has not necessarily been the case when it comes to perspectives on death and dying. Increasing secularization and the general diminishment of spiritual influences on personal beliefs and decisions has led to an increasing view of death as the end of all personal meaning and achievement. Medicine and Science have improved the quality of life for many, but reduced the quality of death.
Throughout much of human history, as can be seen from the above descriptions, death and the dying process took place in the company of family and friends often in the comfort -- such as it may have been -- of ones own home. Starting in the nineteenth century with the advent of modern medicine, death became an institutionalized process that was directed and controlled by physicians and other medical professionals, generally with the prolonging of life in even the most undignified and painful of forms as the only or at least the primary focus of these professionals (Filippo 2006). Success became measured in the ability to put off death as long as possible even though this often meant nothing more than the prolonging of the dying process (Filippo 2006). Rather than being something natural and worthy of respect in its own right death -- and the promise thereof -- became something to be treated and shunned as if it were yet another undesired medical ailment (Filippo 2006).
It is also during this period that various government bodies became intimately involved in the death and dying processes of many is not most individuals (Aries 1975). As the medical industry, which at this point was a heavily scrutinized and regulated as well as an integral part of Western society, took near complete control of death and the dying process it made logical sense for medical regulations to extend to explicit issues of death and the timing of this event, and in fact this was increasingly seen by many as a primary objective for government and medical practitioners alike (Aries 1975). This was an extension the dehumanizing of the dying process that began with the legal entanglements of the Renaissance.
It is not simply the medical industry or the increased government attention to and control of death and dying that has contributed to the dehumanization of this natural process. Other industries -- and this truly is the most apt term for the entities about the be described -- have also changed death from a profound personal and interpersonal experience to something that has been commoditized and compartmentalized so many other aspects of modern capitalist society. From funeral homes to undertaking services, and caskets to cremation death and dying have become matters of big business with over a billion dollars spent in the United States alone on death related expenses even at the height of the Great Depression (Time 1936). With the bare minimum minimal death expenses currently estimated at approximately two thousand dollars, which includes cremation and only the briefest and most basic of services and close to three million deaths a year in the United States, the funeral industry now rakes in well over ten billion dollars a year (Woodruff 2005).
The end result of commoditizing, medical-izing, and governmental-izing death and the dying process has been to remove the dying individual and his or her family from any and all decisions that must be made during this profound period of personal development. Basic human needs for respect, dignity, and self-direction have been subsumed and subjugated by societies need for scientifically and economically defined success. While perhaps assuaging certain misplaced feelings of guilt on the part of family members, prolonging the dying process and removing it from its natural state of reverence increases the physical as well as the psychological pain and suffering associated with death and the dying process.
A New Way Forward
Fortunately, this trend toward dehumanizing death and the dying process has not gone unnoticed by philosophers, human rights activists, or indeed certain medical practitioners. New perspectives -- or in some cases, very old perspectives that have gained a new life -- have come to see death as still, perhaps, the end of and individuals existence but not something to be avoided at all costs simply by dint of this fact. Rather than focusing on forestalling death for as long as possible, medical and regulatory efforts as well as personal philosophies and even legal directives are increasingly concerned with improving the quality of life during the dying process (Hallenbeck 2003; Kinzbrunner et al. 2002). Rather than treating end-of-life care the same as medical treatment during any other period of life, where medical issues are seen as problems that need to be fixed regardless of the other costs to the patient, palliative care the reduces suffering and increases dignity is seen as primarily advantageous by and for many individuals (Hallenbeck 2003).
"Palliative care" refers to the reduction of pain and the mitigating of other symptoms as the primary purpose of medical treatment, in contrast to traditional medical care which might treat symptoms as part of an overall treatment plan, but is more directly concerned with eradicating disease and the underlying causes of experienced symptoms (Hallenbeck 2003). For many individuals going through the dying process, this also includes the increased ability to communicate with family members and other loved ones before death, rather than being subjected to a battery of tests and procedures that force one to pass ones final days in a state of near unconsciousness and isolation (Seymour et al. 2005).
The increased acceptance of palliative care and even the desire for a shortened dying process that maintains a higher quality of life reflects a return to certain traditional perspectives on death and its place in the overall life cycle of individual human beings. As medical science and society move foreword into the twenty-first century, the continuation of this trend promises to restore a great deal of the dignity and reverence to death and the dying process that seem to be so natural a part of these life events. Increasing the amount of interpersonal connection and communication that occurs during the dying process can lead to much greater satisfaction and acceptance of death on the part of the dying individual and can also greatly relieve the negative feelings experienced as the result of the loss of persons one is close to (Seymour et al. 2005; Kinzbrunner et al. 2002). The human experience of death and dying is again becoming to focus of these events, and this should definitely be encouraged as Western culture progresses.
Every living organism on the planet we all inhabit, from the very moment of its birth or inception, is on a path towards death. This is traditionally seen as a pessimistic and even cynical worldview, but this need not be the case. Learning to accept death as a natural part of life and to view the dying process as just another one of the many rich developmental stages of human existence adds to the richness and profundity that life itself has to offer.
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