Death Then and Now: Providential, Suicidal, or Just Regrettable?

A few months ago I read Thomas R. Cole’s book The Journey of Life. I was especially interested to learn about attitudes toward older people throughout U.S. history; here are a few thoughts about the topic. In reading Cole, I noticed that attitudes toward the elderly are closely related to attitudes towards death, so I decided to write a post about that as well.

How should we look at death? Should we welcome it or fear it? Is death a blessing or curse? Are all deaths equal or are some better than others? Does death come regardless of what we do or do we have control over when and how it happens? Contemporary discussions of death often consider such questions, but such questions have been around for a long time.

The Puritans and other Calvinists thought that death could intrude on life at any time. In fact, God followed no discernible order in plucking people from this life and depositing them in the next–young as well as old, rich as well as poor, and healthy as well as sick are regularly death’s victims. Thus, no one should presume that they would have many years remaining. Everyone should prepare for death so as not to be caught unawares. Though in the book of Genesis humans lived hundreds of years, in modern times God rarely bestowed humans with such generous life spans. Late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century Calvinist minister Nathaniel Emmons put the situation like this: “we have great reason to conclude that God has most commonly deprived mankind of the residue of their years, and never allowed one in a thousand or a million of the human race to reach the bounds of life which nature has set.”

Though he was writing less than two hundred years ago, the view of death that Emmons represents is very different from current attitudes. Change was afoot, though. Other writers began suggesting views  of death that are very similar to some 21st century thinking. This alternative view emphasized taking control of one’s health rather than waiting passively for the grim reaper to make his appearance. Cole lists several related movements–“physiological societies, sexual reform, dietary reform, preventive medicine, hydropathy, phrenology, and the initiation of hygiene and physical education in the schools”–that were responsible for such new thinking. This approach optimistically proclaimed that a long and healthy life is within the reach of everyone. What is required was knowledge about health and self-discipline regarding diet and other salubrious practices. Recommended practices included many that have fallen by the wayside but others that are still in use: “vegetarianism, phrenology, temperance,  water cure, sexual restraint, fresh air, and exercise.”  It was generally agreed that “tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, and sexual indulgence overstimulated the nervous system, leading to premature exhaustion and death.”

So if you eat right, avoid excess, and exercise you’ll live a long and healthy life. Many experts give essentially the same advice today. The nineteenth-century reformers differed from current thought in some ways, though. For one thing, there was the notion of a “natural death.” The person who took good care of him- or herself would not only live a long and healthy life; death itself would be better, once the time for that eventually came. The person would die naturally, which was thought of as “the orderly, peaceful culmination of a well-ordered life.” The person would die not of some disease but of old age itself, and death would be free of pain and anxiety. I don’t think anyone now makes such a promise; if you want to die without pain or anxiety, current thinking seems to go, don’t die a natural death. Use drugs instead.

Another way in which the nineteenth-century health enthusiasts differed from current health-promoters is that for them long life was not only desirable but was something everyone is morally obligated to pursue. Here, for example, are the words of the phrenologist Orson Fowler, writing in 1847:

“Each of us has but a single life to live. Hence…it should be spun out as long as the laws of nature will allow, and everything which tends either immediately or remotely to induce disease or shorten life, is, to all intents and purposes, murder or suicide.”

Offering guests sugar- and fat-laden sweets? Murder. Skipping the gym and instead being a couch potato? Suicide. Nutritionists and personal trainers nowadays can be nags, but at least they aren’t accusing us of homicide. Sure, injunctions to take care of ourselves are often accompanied by blaming and guilt-induction, but at least the message is toned down somewhat from the nineteenth-century version. That’s something to be thankful for.

Couch Potato: Doing Oneself In.

Couch Potato: Doing Oneself In.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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