The image of a "natural death," a death which comes under medical care and finds us in good health and old age, is a quite recent ideal. In five hundred years it has evolved through five distinct stages, and is now ready for a sixth. Each stage has found its iconographic expression:
(1) the fifteenth-century "dance of the dead";
(2) the Renaissance dance at the bidding of the skeleton, the so-called "Dance of Death";
(3) the bedroom scene of the aging lecher under the Ancien Régime;
(4) the nineteenth-century doctor in his struggle against the roaming phantoms of consumption and pestilence;
(5) the mid-twentieth-century doctor who steps between the patient and his death; and
(6) death under intensive hospital care. At each stage of its evolution the image of natural death has elicited a new set of responses that increasingly acquired a medical character.
The history of natural death is the history of the medicalization of the struggle against death.
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In a world of "evidence-based" medicine I am a bigger fan of practice-based evidence.
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