When modern viewers see images like the Dance of Death, they might associate them with certain well-known but frequently misunderstood cataclysms of the European Middle Ages, like the terrible plague that swept through England and came to be known as Black Death.

My research on these images, however, reveals a more subtle and nuanced attitude toward death, beginning with the evident beauty of the murals themselves, which endow the theme with color and vitality.

The image of group dance powerfully evokes the grace and fluidity of a community’s cohesion, symbolized by the linking of hands and bodies in a chain that crosses the barrier between life and death. Dance was a powerful metaphor in medieval culture. The Dance of Death may be responding to medieval folk practices, when people came at night to dance in churchyards, and perhaps to the “dancing mania” recorded in the late 14th century, when people danced furiously until they fell to the ground. But images of dance also provoked a viewer to participate in a “virtual” experience of a community. It depicted a society collectively facing up to human mortality.

A HEALTHY COMMUNITY

In analyzing the murals in their broader social context, I found that for medieval cultures, dying was a “transition,” not a rupture, that moved people from the community of the living to the dead in stages.

It was part of a larger spiritual drama that encompassed the family and the broader community. During the dying process, people gathered in groups to aid in a successful transition by offering supportive prayer.

After death, groups prepared the corpse, sewed its shroud and transported the body to a church and then to a cemetery, where the broader community would participate in the rituals. These activities required a high degree of social cohesion to function properly. They were the metaphorical equivalent of dancing with the dead.

The Dance of Death murals thus depicted not a morbid or sick culture but a healthy community collectively facing their common destiny, even as they faced the challenge to renew by replacing the dead with the living.

Many of the murals are irretrievably lost. However, modern restoration work has managed to recover some of them. Perhaps this conservation work can serve as inspiration to recover an older model of death, dying and grief.

ACKNOWLEDGING THE WORK OF THE DEAD

In the modern era entire industries have emerged to whisk the dead from view and alter them to look more like the living. Once buried or cremated, the dead play a much smaller role in our social lives.

Could bringing the dead back into a central role in the community offer a healthier perspective on death for contemporary Western cultures?

Source:-.scientificamerican