Death, writes Walter Benjamin, marks the passage of time. It regulates the voice of the storyteller; it guides pace and rhythm. It “appears in [a chronology] with the same regularity [that] the Reaper does in the processions that pass around the cathedral clock at noon.”[1] Benjamin ties death to the machine, to clockwork. Together, these two figures define and delimit human life: they quietly note the passing of minutes and years, of individuals and generations. They are words with which the storyteller begins and ends a tale: in these processions “Death is either the leader or the last wretched straggler.”[2]

The storyteller, as Benjamin quickly insists, is not a historian. But I think that, for now, we can ignore Benjamin’s strict qualifications: as Michel de Certeau writes, the historian too engages in “a labor of death and a labor against death.”[3] A historian works to recall what has long ago passed away. But by writing a book or a narrative, the historian also relies on death to clear away the power of the past. For this to happen, a historian needs to maintain total control of his or her subject—death is relied upon to sweep away all that might contradict or betray a particular tale. Death, Benjamin reminds us, “is the sanction of everything that storyteller can tell.”[4]

But what happens when the image of death these writers assume—one which is total, punctual, and permanent—begins to fray? In November, the Science, Religion, and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School hosted the first of a series of lectures and events exploring perceptions and histories of death. This inaugural panel focused the ways in which, in the premodern world, death becomes something often messier, and certainly different, than Benjamin expected.


These material memories clung to the survivors: for them, death did not cease with the passing of a relative. It asserted its presence in the everyday.


Death, for the storyteller, requires a permanence that opens the way for the narrator’s voice. But what happens when death refuses to act as such an impermeable barrier? As Professor Karen King noted, death in the early Christian world did not always appear to be such a dark and impenetrable wall. Death was a transition—and a prelude to resurrection. It marked not only the end of one life, but also the beginning of another.

In medieval Europe, death likewise defied attempts to be fixed as impassable, as a moment worthy of fear. But, equally important, death refused to limit itself to a single moment. Professor Daniel Smail spoke of the material remnants left behind by death. Those taken by the plague, for instance, did not simply vanish. They left a trail of clothing, of property, and of possessions. These material memories clung to the survivors: for them, death did not cease with the passing of a relative. It asserted its presence in the everyday. It did not mark time; in the physical world, it filled every moment.

But even if we accept that death appears in our lives far more frequently that Benjamin would have us believe, we are still only beginning to understand the ways it touches our lives. Professor Anne Monius compared death in Christianity with its South Asian variation: in a cyclical understanding of time and of life, death represents not an endpoint or transition, but a recurring, nearly infinite reality. Reincarnation connotes more than multiple lives; in fact, a more accurate understanding demands an emphasis on the endless death that such returns imply.


How then do we write history in light of a more fluid understanding of death? How can we write the history of death itself?


Hannah Arendt once linked history directly to biography. For her, history was only possible given the passage from life into death that we all must share.[5] Like Benjamin, she grounded storytelling and history in their ability to mark a beginning and an end, and to embrace death as a fitting and inevitable end. If we take these two authors at their word, then it seems our very way of speaking, of telling tales, and of writing history relies on death.

As the professors and scholars mentioned above so carefully showed us, however, death is anything but a stable concept. It has changed over time, played numerous roles. At one historical moment, it is a point of transition; at another, it is an always-unnatural, tragic event. Or it could be a daily presence, a constant memory; a rhythmic, perpetual motion. A history of death requires us to question our assumptions about its solidity and universality. And it asks us to rethink our role as historians or students of the past.

How then do we write history in light of a more fluid understanding of death? How can we write the history of death itself? Clearly, to write well entails an effort to move beyond a chronology defined by death. It demands that we work with time on different levels—on the levels of individual lives, of generations, of cities, nations, and landscapes. We need to be attentive to the multiple lines of historical narrative. Yet death also pushes us to write not of life or death in isolation, but of the two as constantly tied together, inextricable. Though death at times acts as an end, it also appears as something worked out within daily life. It is the measure of human life, but also a phenomenon reiterated throughout the everyday, the mundane, and the exceptional. Death is not only the end of life, but an integral aspect of it.

Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.


[1] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 95.

[2] Ibid., 97.

[3] Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 5.

[4] Benjamin, Illuminations, 94.

[5] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 184.

Image from Flickr via hogeslag


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