Annihilation is not a pleasant thought. Therefore most people hold that we live on in one way or other, if not in a different world, if not spiritually so to speak, then in our children, in our friends’ memories and last not least in plants to which our decomposed bodies give valuable nutrients, the plants themselves being food for higher beings, etc., a natural circle of which humans are part.
Human society comprizes the span from birth to death which means that it is concerned exclusively with the visible, audible, etc. world. Anything before birth or after death is beyond it and in fact of no consequence. Its interest in a human being begins with birth and ends with death.
Society can’t help accepting death and tries to deal with it with good grace. It subjects the phenomenon to its own rules and regulations, thus making it an integral and manageable part of earthly life. Religion, as represented by the Church, is a great helper in this respect. In a non-religious environment society will create its own, not very dissimilar ritual, enabling it to cope with the problem.
Society decides what kind of death its members can have. The most common one, generally accepted for being inevitable, is ‘natural’ death, death of old age or other unfortunate causes, like diseases of which there is a large spectrum available. In many such cases society goes to the length of welcoming death, because it is supposed to bring relief. It is good to see that the suffering is finished. Society continues anyway and provides a more or less decent funeral, depending on the status of the defunct involved.
A kind of death which is socially not acceptable, giving rise to concern, dismay and criticism, is suicide. It was considered such a serious offence at one time, that the offender would not receive a proper funeral. However, this attitude has softened. Why does suicide cause offence ? Because the person concerned could have chosen to live, but preferred to die. He had a choice which anybody dying ‘naturally’ doesn’t. Society expects everyone to live with enthusiasm. Suicide is against a social convention and constitutes contempt of Society. It is not a done thing. Society has no means of preventing people from trespassing against its conventions, but it can punish such people afterwards. By refusing a funeral, for example.
Society has, on the other hand, the power to implement death in general and under special circumstances in particular. Death then becomes acceptable because Society will have it and because the people suffering it do so involuntarily, being made to die whether they like it or not.
Death becomes acceptable in pursuit of certain aims set by Society. The individual is allowed to die for the sake of Society, not for his own sake. Society might want to rid itself of undesirable elements, for example, the definition of ‘undesirable’ being laid down by the ruling powers. Death is then regarded as a punishment. More regrettable cases of death occur inadvertently as a consequence of Society’s way of life : fatal accidents of all kinds. Still regrettable, but honourable is the sacrifice of one’s life for Society by engaging in action destined to guarantee Society’s existence. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The ruling powers decide what action is needed in pursuit of which aims. All members of Society are held to respect the decisions and do the necessary. In recognition of their dead members’ loyalty, Society will erect monuments, the sizes of which are subject to different considerations, like the importance and/or number of people involved as well as the cost, everything must be in proportion. It is also considered a fine gesture to gather the mortal remains even years after the event and bring them home, so that they can be put to rest in a necropolis, a useful place, reminding people in regular intervals of their duty towards Society. In most Societies memorial services are held, speeches made and the due ritual displayed, the modalities of which depend on the nature of the respective Society. Religion reveals itself as a great asset on such occasions and in general whenever Society is faced with death. Society at its wits’ end introduces religion as a convenient means to sugar the pill. Time asserts itself as the great healer it is supposed to be. And in any case, life goes on …