Sunday, January 27, 2013

Public Death vs. Man-Made Death

“Our societies are dedicated to the preservation and care of life .... Public death was first recognized as a matter of civilized concern in the nineteenth century, when some health workers decided that untimely death was a question between men and society, not between men and God. Infant mortality and endemic disease became matters of social responsibility. Since then, and for that reason, millions of lives have been saved. They are not saved by accident or goodwill. Human life is daily deliberately protected from nature by accepted practices of hygiene and medical care, by the control of living conditions and the guidance of human relationships. Mortality statistics are constantly examined to see if the causes of death reveal any areas needing special attention. Because of the success of these practices, the area of public death has, in advanced societies, been taken over by man-made death--once an insignificant or "merged" part of the spectrum, now almost the whole. 

When politicians, in tones of grave wonder, characterize our age as one of vast effort in saving human life, and enormous vigor in destroying it, they seem to feel they are indicating some mysterious paradox of the human spirit. 

There is no paradox and no mystery. The difference is that one area of public death has been tackled and secured by the forces of reason; the other has not. The pioneers of public health did not change nature, or men, but adjusted the active relationship of men to certain aspects of nature so that the relationship became one of watchful and healthy respect. In doing so they had to contend with and struggle against the suspicious opposition of those who believed that to interfere with nature was sinful, and even that disease and plague were the result of something sinful in the nature of man himself.”

Gil Elliot, Twentieth Century Book of the Dead

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