One of the more interesting ways to gauge the impact of the distorted values and meanings that have emerged from within the context of our modern world, a world where these distorted values and meanings seem altogether normal, is the shift in which life is generally viewed at it's terminal point.
I recently stumbled across an excerpt of an analysis ("Changes in the Public Portrayal of Death" by Eric Nelson) of obituaries published in the Salem (Massachusetts) Evening News between 1786 and 1990 that highlights a number of the watermarks of modernity and its impact. Three areas stand out and are worthy of note:
1. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, most obituaries made some mention of the character of the deceased; by the end of the century that was rarely the case. In 1786, 80 percent of obituaries made reference to character. By 1810, this figure had fallen to 71 percent; by 1830, to 45 percent; by 1900, to 10 percent. After that, no such references can be found. By contrast, a person's occupation was seldom an important detail in the obituaries at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but by 1990 it had become the key means by which a person was identified. In 1786, only 15 percent of the obituaries mentioned the person's occupation. By 1900, this figure had grown to 70 percent. It then declined for a time, but by 1990 it had rebounded and increased to 80 percent.
2. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, obituaries were largely written in religious language, much of it specifically Christian. In 1786, 79 percent of the obituaries used religious language in speaking of the person's death. By 1810, only 70 percent did; by 1830 only 20 percent; and by 1900 such references had vanished completely. Interestingly, the frequency of the mention of pain and suffering in these obituaries declined in tandem with the loss of religious language.
3. Obituaries published at the beginning of the nineteenth century typically made some reference to the individual's involvement in community life. Between 1810 and 1830 the number of these references declined sharply, and by 1900 they had vanished completely. In 1786, 65 percent of obituaries spoke of the connection the person had had with the community and often the person's contributions to the same. By 1810, this figure had fallen to 57 percent; by 1830 to 11 percent; and by 1900, this form of measuring and identifying the deceased had fallen into disuse entirely.
This apparent substitution of function for character combined with the decline of a common religious worldview which has diminished our capacity to deal with pain and suffering, as well as the decreasing value on ties to the community is consistent both with the rise of anonymity in our large, complex, and specialized world and with a new sense that it is now inappropriate to define a person on the basis of character in a public context, a context which, sadly, no longer offers a consensus concerning what constitutes good character.
Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch