The Daily Bones

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Shifting Attitudes Towards Death: the Fault of Economics

One of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read is Western Attitude Towards Death, a rather short piece by Philippe Aries that documents the transitioning view towards death during the rise of western culture.  Death is a topic I’ve always found intriguing, as it’s the biggest uncertain certainty of life.  Every living organism will die at some point, and it’s safe to say that we’ll never be certain of what lies after until we encounter it.  Regardless of this rather indisputable fact, the attitudes and treatment of death has evolved greatly over the last several millennia.  What’s equally fascinating in addition to the uncertainty of death itself is the influences on society that alter the way it looks at death.  In almost all cases, direct ties to large periods of economics transition coincided with great changes in society’s attitude towards death.

Aries outlines the attitude and mentality towards death from the middle ages to the modern view on mortality, highlighting several of the key turning points during the time period in question.  His book takes the form of four essays, beginning with “Tamed Death” – a period of solemn acceptance of a necessary threshold – to the modern take he calls “Forbidden Death” – the widespread view that the effects of death should be minimized as much as possible.

Perhaps the most striking correlation between the treatment of death and economic transformation crops up when comparing the nature of western society to its view of mortality.  A plausible relationship exists between the level of commercialization (and subsequently, individualism) and the view towards the deceased.  During the Roman civilization, the level of commercial activity and trade between different providences was astoundingly high as compared to the years that followed its demise.  Aries does not comment much on the attitudes toward death during this particular time period, but explains the nature of burial grounds for the dead.  Historians have discovered that Romans engaged in the practice of marking graves with the names of the deceased, a measure carried out to maintain the identity of the dead.  This practice all but disappeared following the collapse of the Roman civilization, corresponding with a complete collapse of continental trade in Europe from the chaotic country sides.  Quality of life decreased dramatically, most of the population lived in fear, and the level of individualism became virtually zero as religion grew to be the central theme of the average person.

After several centuries, numerous innovations in technology and very gradual commercialization influencing even slower urbanization became a catalyst for the return of the importance of the individual.  At the same time, religious themes began to transform to a stronger approach, an attempt to maintain devout faith to the Church  as the fear of God diminished in society.  Aries describes a radical shift in thought concerning the time of death.  Before the 12th and 13th centuries, death was considered a long, expectant sleep, awaiting the Second Coming.  Upon the Second Coming of Christ, those who were devout to the Church would awaken in a “heavenly Jerusalem” while those who were not followers were never to wake again, damned to non-existence.  Just before and throughout the 13th century, the idea of the “expectant sleep” transitioned to a judgment upon death, with an analysis of a “good/bad deed balance sheet” that dictated the faith of the deceased.  This development coincided with the shift of Jesus as a “feminine” and loving figure to a vengeful and judging force that occurred in the 14th century with St. Augustine.  It’s more than conceivable that the thematic shift in religion was a response to quell the growing commercialized and individualistic culture that the Church opposed vehemently.

The Protestant Reformation would further alter the view on religion and consequently the attitudes of Europeans toward death.  Protestantism, unlike Catholicism, supported the rise of commercial activity, citing a deep religious connection between man and his work.  To succeed in an occupation was to succeed in God’s calling, providing motivation for commercialization and a direct connection between individuals and God.  Aries discusses the revitalization of marked and named graves, a return to the Roman practice of maintaining the identity and legacy of the deceased.  Again, this resurgence coincides with the rise of the individual in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Furthermore, since that time period, it can be argued that modernized countries have become more and more individualistic, and at the same time the attitudes toward death have continued to center around minimizing the loss of the deceased and extending the length of the human life.   While it is difficult to say with certainty that these movements are directly related to each other, mere coincidence is not sufficient in explaining the cyclical nature of both of these trends and their consequential nature.

In addition to the relation of the movements supporting individualism and the attitudes toward mortality, growing secularism can be attributed to transformations in how death was viewed.  As I mentioned before, the Middle Ages consisted of a chaotic state with a low quality of life, directly influencing the faith of those who lived during the period.  No scientific evidence attempted to explain the world around them, which left the explanations up to religion.  Additionally, their lives were spent in fear and suffering, providing a motivation for faith, as life was a means of suffering on the way to a glorious afterlife for eternity in paradise.  As commercialization gradually improved the per capita income for Europeans, individualism overtook the power of the Church and with the help of Catholic corruption led to the Protestant Reformation.  The reformation began a trend away from religion as the sole purpose for life, and eventually faith waned as time passed influencing an evolution in the feelings toward fatality.  During the Middle Ages until around the 16th century, the deceased were buried in dirt near Churches to signify their devotion to God.  Charnel houses became the final resting place for many people, as the idea of individual tombs did not arise until much later.  The idea of a complete body was not an issue at this time period, as the deceased merely wanted their bones to be near those of the saints; whether their body was left intact structurally was of no concern.

However, as death took on a romanticized role in a secularized state contrary to its previous function in society, individual coffins served as permanent and marked “housing” for the deceased, meant to maintain their identity and allow visitation by survivors of the dead.  The decline in religion coupled with the rise in per capita income would have further implications.  With better nutrition, life expectancy increased to the point where depression ridden leisure classes developed in westernized societies.  While this occurred much later, it is a consequence of the growing conflict between the individual and death (both of one’s self and others close to them) from the “lack of fulfillment” set out during adolescence.  This development is a possible economic effect of Industrialization, as many individuals no longer provide the means of production for the output they produce.  This disconnect is one explanation for the romantic transformation of death during the 18th century, as it provided a further sense of meaning in some ways.

Ever since I’ve taken courses on economic history, coupled with the books I’ve read on behavioral economics, I’ve been enthralled with this type of analysis.  The economic influences are obvious but few tend to look at the causal, long term effects of economic change on the intellectual nature and behavior of society.  If you found this essay interesting, I highly recommend reading Aries book cover to cover.  Not only is it interesting, it’s almost therapeutic.

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Investing in a Flexible Future

Making the decision to live within your means is like a pre-nuptial agreement with your job.  Failure to do so could leave you in a bad financial position if things don’t work out.

This jumped out at me while reading two posts loosely related on the surface: one that analyzes why so many Ivy League graduates join Wall St firms upon graduation (link) and the other discussing the burden of consumer debt (link).  With all of the job dissatisfaction that I encounter, the advice in this post is required knowledge.

I highly suggest reading both articles in their entirety, but if you’re looking for enough to get through my post, see the footnotes here and here.

These articles work incredibly well in tandem, as debt (especially of the consumer variety) becomes an increasingly large hurdle to change your life as you age and encounter fiscally intensive life milestones.  It’s quite difficult to alter your career path if you need to support a family, and consumer debt provides that last mountain you may not be able to climb, effectively limiting you to your current situation.

Smart financial decisions are an investment necessary to provide future flexibility, plain and simple. Consider the following two scenarios. In both cases, the individuals put aside some money, but treat income increases differently.

Scenario 1: John graduates college and starts working for a major consulting firm.  He embraces the life style that his salary affords, buys the best new car he can afford and spends his weekend nights draining $12 whiskey drinks in the city.  He finances deals on his apartment furniture, has an iPhone, but still manages to save 5-6% for his 401k or other investments.  After 3 years, equally increasing his expenses with salary, John meets a girl and within 2 years he’s married.

Scenario 2: Jane graduates from the same school and John and works for the same consulting firm.  She realizes this job (and salary) may not last forever, and wants to remain flexible if life doesn’t go as planned.  She buys a used car; nice, but not extravagant.  She keeps tabs on her expenses, maintaining discipline even as she sees her annual income increase.  She also ends up with a spouse after 4 years, but has considerable savings because of her lifestyle choices.

Of the two, obviously Jane is in a better spot to take a risk and move from her high paying, big firm job to go back to school, or start a company, while still living relatively comfortably.  She can risk some time without a stable salary to pursue other opportunities.  John, on the other hand, has grown accustomed to his lifestyle.  Monthly payments and growing family aspirations require him to be risk averse.  His fiscal mistakes early on, which have now compounded, have left him for more cemented into his current employment situation.

I’d much rather be in Jane’s situation, obviously.  I may indulge in unnecessary expenses and I have my fun, but I absolutely avoid burdening consumer debt that will compound and limit my options in the future.  I treat income bumps as a savings opportunity to invest in my future, not as a means to scoring the best apartment I can afford in SoHo.

It’s all a matter of discipline and resisting the temptation of co-workers like John.  Naturally, it’s much easier said than done.


1) “Why do Harvard Kids Head to Wall St?” by James Kwak discusses the various methods firms employ to attract Ivy League graduates to investment and management consulting firms, namely selling the opportunity for future overachievement, large salaries, and lavish headquarter offices. To someone who has been a success their entire life, feels the pressure to live up to their potential and is potentially strapped with debt, these firms are an attractive alternative to difficult to find positions at smaller firms or seeking out that “dream job”.

2) “Consumer Debt is not Your Friend” by marketing god Seth Godin describes the overwhelming burden of consumer debt and the intense use of it as a marketing tool.  He warns that taking on debt for anything that decreases in value is a worrisome mistake, while deferring payment on expenses that increase in value (like education) is worthwhile.

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