Mt. Hope Cemetery, Rochester, NY. Gravesite of 176 Spanish-American War veterans and 73 widows. Leslie’s daughter, Audrey Boyce, holding a photo of David Kramer wearing the uniform and holding a photograph of one soldiers who fought in the war [Photo: David Kramer], 4/21/16. See On Spanish-American War monuments in Rochester and Audrey’s excellent adventure in Rochester
Death past and present by Leslie Kramer
In the time of COVID, I am reflecting — strangely finding some measure of comfort — on earlier eras, when death was a fellow traveler, when the threat of death was ever present, even by those who weren’t aged or being sent to Afghanistan or fighting cancer. I’m thinking of when Jane Austin was writing her novels, when Shakespeare produced his plays, or when the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia. Every ocean voyage posed a risk of dying at sea, half of women died giving birth, small pox and typhoid killed thousands. Born in 2003, my daughter can expect to live 80.8 years! Today, most of us live a lot of years with the assumption that we will live a lot more years, and that our peers will stay alive too.
Younger Americans have not experienced a world where death is commonplace, unlike those who were born even just a hundred years ago. A person born in 1920 had a life expectancy of 54. Go back to 1776 and it was 38 years. Of course, many more people died in childhood in the past, but the average person who was born in 1776 who survived childhood, could only expect to live to 57. As for diseases, for example, the soldier in Audrey’s picture fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War of 1898. That soldier had a far greater chance of dying from then largely untreatable tropical malarial than a spanish bullet.In past eras, most people had lost numerous family members and friends by the age of 20. Every neighborhood church had a cemetery. While our apocalyptic fiction is sanguinary: full of death and mayhem, our real life is rather sanguine. The risk of an early death from COVID-19 is not insignificant, but not nearly as likely as an early death in previous eras. It’s not the Black Plague in the 14th century or the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. People aren’t dropping like flies.
Though this COVID-19 epidemic is not going to make a big dent in our national life expectancy and is thankfully mostly sparing the young, like my daughter, the fear of death hovers a little closer than usual, and that does connect us to times in the past when our ancestors were living in a more fragile world.
Perhaps every era struggles to make sense of death in its own way. I remember reading that Sigmund Freud never got over the death of his daughter from the Spanish Flu. Freud tried to process the pain of his daughter’s death as a “narcissist loss.”¹ In earlier times, death caused just as much heartache, but death must have been a little more familiar and integrated into the fabric of life, something that didn’t prevent you from getting up in the morning, going to work, writing Pride and Prejudice or exploring the royal road to the unconscious.
My daughter has lost two grandparents and seen illness up close, but COVID-19 is her first exposure to a society in a major existential crisis. The way people die from COVID-19 is not that different from the ends of life in hospitals we have witnessed. What is different now is what was perhaps more familiar in the past: more people dying and more visibility of sickness and death.
My daughter’s generation may live long happy lives, but perhaps more than me, Audrey will be less likely to take that expectation for granted, finding her own way to make sense of the life she is given.
¹ Leslie refers to Sophie Halberstadt-Freud (1893-1920), who from died from complications resulting from the Spanish flu that ravaged Europe after the Great War.
As noted in Encyclopedia.com, in an excerpt from a letter written to Pastor Pfister² that could describe covid times, Freud called Sophie’s death, a “serious narcissistic injury.”
This afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influenzal pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed. Although we had been worried about her for a couple of days, we had nevertheless been hopeful; it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance; we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended, after the first alarming news; there was no train, not even for an emergency. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us. Tomorrow she is to be cremated, our poor Sunday child! . . . Sophie leaves two sons, one of six, the other thirteen months, and an inconsolable husband who will have to pay dearly for the happiness of these seven years. The happiness existed exclusively within them; outwardly there was war, conscription, wounds, the depletion of their resources, but they had remained courageous and gay. I work as much as I can, and am thankful for the diversion. The loss of a child seems to be a serious, narcissistic injury; what is known as mourning will probably follow only later.
Scholars have debated whether this grief — the death of Sophie — inspired the introduction of the death impulse in Freudian theory. Most likely, the bloody war of 1914-1918 was sufficient for this change in Freud’s thinking.
² Pastor Oskar Pfister (1873-1956) played a significant role in the development of the psychoanalysis in Switzerland, especially after Jung moved away from the Freudian current and founded his own school. (Freudfile.org/pfister)
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