Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

When and Why Have Americans “Forgotten" Death?

We have a long history of cultural amnesia when it comes to death and dying.

When and why have Americans “forgotten” death? For about a century now, we have collectively ignored death and dying in everyday life, a clear break from the past and from most other societies. It was in the 1920s that Americans began to actively shun death, something that continues to this day. Milton Waldman, writing in The American Mercury in 1927, posited that our sense of death- one of the cornerstones of Western civilization, he felt- was not only on the decline in the United States but on the brink of disappearing completely. In Europe, Waldman concluded after a trip across the pond, death continued to be a prominent theme in religion, philosophy, the arts, and literature but here in America few people wanted to think or talk much about it. Americans were more interested in spinning the wheels of commerce and too busy making money in the booming stock market to have time for death, he felt. The only ones taking the subject seriously here were businesspeople incorporating their companies to avoid estate taxes should they die, people paying their life insurance premiums, and hypochondriacs. Once firmly embedded in the writings of Poe, Whitman, Melville, Lincoln, and Dickinson (over a third of her poems addressed the subject), the concept of death could now be hardly found in American literature, this is a reflection of its downgraded cultural status.

Why and how had Americans, as he expressed it, “forgotten” death? Life in America in the 20th century was a lot safer than it had been a half-century earlier, Waldman theorized, and significantly more comfortable than in contemporary Europe. It was true that the American horn of plenty had greatly lowered the odds of famine, the Machine Age creating abundance for many if not most citizens. “And so he has come to mitigate death in a sense to avert it altogether,” Waldman wrote, with few catastrophes the average American could not somehow avert. (His article appeared thirty-two months before Black Friday and the beginning of a twelve-year economic slump that ruined the lives of many.) Given our dismissive attitude towards death, it was not surprising to Waldman that some scientists and physicians had begun to view death as a faulty cog in the apparatus of life that could possibly be repaired. “It is amazing, this firmly-held tenet that the basic immutable law of nature is merely a careless flaw in the organization of things,” he exclaimed, our social resistance to death bringing this on. Waldman believed all this to be unnatural and harmful, our “dying less” making us “live less.” Whether we recognized it or not, death was, he eloquently stated:

"A desirable corner from which to survey life, because it makes life itself more precious and significant; because it gives poignancy to its beauties and delicate shades to its surfaces; because in the end, by accepting the inevitable, it makes for a finer, clearer understanding of ourselves; because it makes us see ourselves against the one background of which we are certain- that of the inexorable law of our common mortality."

Larry Samuel, Ph.D., is a cultural historian and the founder of Culture Planning LLC.

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