1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Death
DEATH, the permanent cessation of the vital functions in the bodies of animals and plants, the end of life or act of dying. The word is the English representative of the substantive common to Teutonic languages, as “dead” is of the adjective, and “die” of the verb; the ultimate origin is the pre-Teutonic verbal stem dau-; cf. Ger Tod, Dutch dood, Swed. and Dan. död.
For the scientific aspects of the processes involved in life and its cessation see Biology, Physiology, Pathology, and allied articles; and for the consideration of the prolongation of life see Longevity. Here it is only necessary to deal with the more primitive views of death and with certain legal aspects.
Ethnology.—To the savage, death from natural causes is inexplicable. At all times and in all lands, if he reflects upon death at all, he fails to understand it as a natural phenomenon; nor in its presence is he awed or curious. Man in a primitive state has for his dead an almost animal indifference. The researches of archaeologists prove that Quaternary Man cared little what became of his fellow-creature’s body. And this lack of interest is found to-day as a general characteristic of savages. The Goajiros of Venezuela bury their dead, they confess, simply to get rid of them. The Galibis of Guiana, when asked the meaning of their curious funeral ceremony, which consists in dancing on the grave, replied that they did it to stamp down the earth. Fuegians, Bushmen, Veddahs, show the same lack of concern and interest in the memory of the dead. Even the Eskimos, conspicuous as they are for their intelligence and sociability, save themselves the trouble of caring for their sick and old by walling them up and leaving them to die in a lonely hut; the Chukches stone or strangle them to death; some Indian tribes give them over to tigers, and the Battas of Sumatra eat them. This indifference is not dictated by any realization that death means annihilation of the personality. The savage conception of a future state is one that involves no real break in the continuity of life as he leads it. If a man dies without being wounded he is considered to be the victim of the sorcerers and the evil spirits with which they consort. Throughout Africa the death of anyone is ascribed to the magicians of some hostile tribe or to the malicious act of a neighbour. A culprit is easily discovered either by an appeal to a local diviner or in torturing some one into confession. In Australia it is the same. Mr Andrew Lang says that “whenever a native dies, no matter how evident it may be that death has been the result of natural causes, it is at once set down that the defunct was bewitched.” The Bechuanas and all Kaffir tribes believe that death, even at an advanced age, if not from hunger or violence, is due to witchcraft, and blood is required to expiate or avenge it. Similar beliefs are found among the Papuans, and among the Indians of both Americas. The history of witchcraft in Europe and its attendant horrors, so vividly painted in Lecky’s Rise of Rationalism, are but echoes of this universal refusal of savage man to accept death as the natural end of life. Even to-day the ignorant peasantry of many European countries, Russia, Galicia and elsewhere, believe that all disease is the work of demons, and that medicinal herbs owe their curative properties to their being the materialized forms of benevolent spirits.
This animistic tendency is a marked characteristic of primitive Man in every land. The savage explains the processes of inanimate nature by assuming that living beings or spirits, possessed of capacities similar to his own, are within the inanimate object. The growth of a tree, the spark struck from a flint, the devastating floods of a river, mean to him the natural actions of beings within the tree, stone or water. And thus too he explains to himself the phenomena of human life, believing that each man has within him a mannikin or animal which dictates his actions in life. This miniature man is the savage’s conception of the soul; sleep and trance being regarded as the temporary, death as the permanent, absence of the soul. Each individual is thus deemed to have a dual existence. This “subliminal” self (in modern terminology) has many forms. The Hurons thought that it possessed head, body, arms and legs, in fact that it was an exact miniature of a man. The Nootkas of British Columbia regard it as a tiny man, living in the crown of the head. So long as it stands erect, its possessor is well, but if it falls from its position the misfortunes of ill-health and madness at once assail him. The ancient Egyptian believed in the soul or “double.” The inhabitants of Nias, an island to the west of Sumatra, have the strange belief that to everyone before birth is given the choice of a long and heavy or short and light soul (a parallel belief may be found in early Greek philosophy), and his choice determines the length of life. Sometimes the soul is conceived as a bird. The Bororos of Brazil fancy that in that shape the soul of a sleeper passes out of the body during night-time, returning to him at his awakening. The Bella Coola Indians say the soul is a bird enclosed in an egg and lives in the nape of the neck. If the shell bursts and the soul flies away, the man must die. If however the bird flies away, egg and all, then he faints or loses his reason. A popular superstition in Bohemia assumes that the soul in the shape of a white bird leaves the body by way of the mouth. Among the Battas of Sumatra rice or grain is sprinkled on the head of a man who returns from a dangerous enterprise, and in the latter case the grains are called padiruma tondi, “means to make the soul (tondi) stay at home.” In Java the new-born babe is placed in a hen-coop, and the mother makes a clucking noise, as if she were a hen, to attract the child’s soul. It is regarded by many savage peoples as highly dangerous to arouse a sleeper suddenly, as his soul may not have time to return. Still more dangerous is it to move a sleeper, for the soul on its return might not be able to find the body. Flies and butterflies are forms which the souls are believed by some races to take, and the Esthonians of the island of Oesel think that the gusts of wind which whirl tornado-like through the roads are the souls of old women seeking what they can find.
But more widespread perhaps than any belief, from its simplicity doubtless, is the idea that the body’s shadow or reflexion is the soul. The Basutos think that crocodiles can devour the shadow of a man cast on the surface of water. In many parts of the world sorcerers are credited with supernatural powers over a man by an attack on his shadow. The sick man is considered to have lost his shadow or a part of it. Dante refers to the shadowless spectre of Virgil, and the folklore of many European countries affords examples of the prevalence of the superstition that a man must be as careful of his shadow as of his body. In the same way the reflexion-soul is thought to be subject to a malice of enemies or attacks of beasts and has been the cause of superstitions which in one form or another exist to-day. From the Fijian and Andaman islander who exhibits abject terror at seeing himself in a glass or in water, to the English or European peasant who covers up the mirrors or turns them to the wall, upon a death occurring, lest an inmate of the house should see his own face and have his own speedy demise thus prognosticated, the idea holds its ground. It was probably the origin of the story of Narcissus, and there is scarcely a race which is free from the haunting dread. Lastly the soul is pictured as being a man’s breath (anima), and this again has come down to us in literature, evidenced by the fact that the word “breath” has become a synonym for life itself. The “last breath” has meant more than a mere metaphor. It expresses the savage belief that there departs from the dying in the final expiration a something tangible, capable of separate existence—the soul. Among the Romans custom imposed a sacred duty on the nearest relative, usually the heir, to inhale the “last breath” of the dying. Moreover the classics bear evidence to the sanctity with which sentiment surrounded the last kiss; Cicero, in his speech against Verres, saying “Matres ab extremo complexu liberum exclusae: quae nihil aliud orabant nisi ut filiorum extremum spiritum ore excipere sibi liceret.” Virgil, too, refers in the Aeneid, iv. 684, to the custom, which survives to-day as a ceremonial practice among many savage and semi-civilized people.
From the inability of the savage in all ages and in all lands to comprehend death as a natural phenomenon, there results a tendency to personify death, and myths are invented to account for its origin. Sometimes it is a “taboo” which has been broken and gives Death power over man. In New Zealand Maui, the divine hero of Polynesia, was not properly baptized. In Australia a woman was told not to go near a tree where a bat lived: she infringed the prohibition, the bat fluttered out, and death resulted. The Ningphoos were dismissed from Paradise and became mortal because one of them bathed in water which had been “tabooed” (Dalton, p. 13). Other versions of the Death-myth in Polynesia relate that Maui stole a march on Night as she slept, and would have passed right through her to destroy her, but a little bird which sings at sunset woke her, she destroyed Maui, and men lost immortality. In India Yama, the god of Death, is assumed, like Maui, to have been the first to “spy out the path to the other world.” In the Solomon Islands (Jour. Anth. Inst., February 1881) “Koevari was the author of death, by resuming her cast-off skin.” The same story is told in the Banks Islands. The Greek myth (Hesiod, Works and Days, 90) alleged that mortals lived “without ill diseases that give death to men” till the cover was lifted from the box of Pandora. This personification of Death has had as a consequence the introduction into the folklore of many lands of stories, often humorous, of the tricks played on the Enemy of Mankind. Thus Sisyphus fettered Death, keeping him prisoner till rescued by Ares; in Venetian folklore Beppo ties him up in a bag for eighteen months; while in Sicily an innkeeper corks him up in a bottle, and a monk keeps him in his pouch for forty years. The German parallel is Gambling Hansel, who kept Death up a tree for seven years. Such examples might be multiplied unendingly, but enough has been said to show that the attitude of civilized man towards the sphinx-riddle of his end has been in part dictated and is even still influenced by the savage belief that to die is unnatural.
Law—Registration.—The registration of burials in England goes back to the time of Thomas Cromwell, who in 1538 instituted the keeping of parish registers. Statutory measures were taken from time to time to ensure the preservation of registers of burials, but it was not until 1836 (the Births and Deaths Registration Act) that the registration of deaths became a national concern. Other acts dealing with death registration were subsequently passed, and the whole law for England consolidated by the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1874. By that act, the registration of every death and the cause of the death is compulsory. When a person dies in a house information of the death and the particulars required to be registered must be given within five days of the death to the registrar to the best of the person’s knowledge and belief by one of the following persons:—(1) The nearest relative of the deceased present at the death, or in attendance during the last illness of the deceased. If they fail, then (2) some other relative of the deceased in the same sub-district (registrar’s) as the deceased. In default of relatives, (3) some person present at the death, or the occupier of the house in which, to his knowledge, the death took place. If all the above fail, (4) some inmate of the house, or the person causing the body of the deceased to be buried. The person giving the information must sign the register. Similarly, also, information must be given concerning death where the deceased dies not in a house.
Where written notice of the death, accompanied by a medical certificate of the cause of death, is sent to the registrar, information must nevertheless be given and the register signed within fourteen days after the death by the person giving the notice or some other person as required by the act. Failure to give information of death, or to comply with the registrar’s requisitions, entails a penalty not exceeding forty shillings, and making false statements or certificates, or forging or falsifying them, is punishable either summarily within six months, or on indictment within three years of the offence. Before burial takes place the clergyman or other person conducting the funeral or religious service must have the registrar’s certificate that the death of the deceased person has been duly registered, or else a coroner’s order or warrant. Failing the certificate, the clergyman cannot refuse to bury, but he must forthwith give notice in writing to the registrar. Failure to do so within seven days involves a penalty not exceeding ten pounds. Children must not be registered as still-born without a medical certificate or a signed declaration from some one who would have been required, if the child had been born alive, to give information concerning the birth, that the child was still-born and that no medical man was present at the birth, or a coroner’s order. The registration of deaths at sea is regulated by the act of 1874 together with the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. See further Birth and Burial and Burial Acts. Registers of death are, in law, evidence of the fact of death, and the entry, or a certified copy of it, will be sufficient evidence without a certificate of burial, although it is desirable that it should also be produced.
Presumption of Death.—The fact of death may, in English law, be proved not only by direct but by presumptive evidence. When a person disappears, so that no direct proof of his whereabouts or death is obtainable, death may be presumed at the expiration of seven years from the period when the person was last heard of. It is always, however, a matter of fact for the jury, and the onus of proving the death lies on the party who asserts it. In Scotland, by the Presumption of Life (Scotland) Act 1891, the presumption is statutory. In those cases where people disappear under circumstances which create a strong probability of death, the court may, for the purpose of probate or administration, presume the death before the lapse of seven years. The question of survivorship, where two or more persons are shown to have perished by the same catastrophe, as in cases of shipwreck, has been much discussed. It was at one time thought that there might be a presumption of survivorship in favour of the younger as against the older, of the male as against the female, &c. But it is now clear that there is no such presumption (In re Alston, 1892, P. 142). This is also the rule in most states of the American Union. The doctrine of survivorship originated in the Roman Law, which had recourse to certain artificial presumptions, where the particular circumstances connected with deaths were unknown. Some of the systems founded on the civil law, as the French code, have adopted certain rules of survivorship.
Civil Death is an expression used, in law, in contradistinction to natural death. Formerly, a man was said to be dead in law (1) when he entered a monastery and became professed in religion; (2) when he abjured the realm; (3) when he was attainted of treason or felony. Since the suppression of the monasteries there has been no legal establishment for professed persons in England, and the first distinction has therefore disappeared, though for long after the original reason had ceased to make it necessary grants of life estates were usually made for the terms of a man’s natural life. The act abolishing sanctuaries (1623) did away with civil death by abjuration; and the Forfeiture Act 1870, that on attainder for treason or felony.
For the tax levied on the estate of deceased persons, and sometimes called “death duty,” see Succession Duty.
For the statistics of the death-rate of the United Kingdom as compared with that of the various European countries see United Kingdom. See also the articles Annuity; Capital Punishment; Cremation; Insurance; Medical Jurisprudence, &c.