There is nothing more certain at the moment of our birth than the inevitability of our death. As human beings, we are arguably the only creatures able to refl ect on this knowledge about our mortality, making death a topic unlike any other. Indeed, death is one of the few subjects that is of truly universal concern; throughout human history, this sense of ending has had an impact on the ways in which we order and give meaning to our lives, it has been central to many (if not all) of our religious beliefs and practices, and it has played a signifi cant role in our mythology, art, literature, science, and philosophy. Arthur Schopenhauer argues, for instance, that death is “the true inspiring genius, or the muse of philosophy”, because without it there would scarcely be any philosophising (249), while for Archibald MacLeish, death is “the perspective of every great picture ever painted and the underbeat of every measurable poem” (qtd. in Kearl, “Images”). The “foreground of life” is only possible with the “background of death”, Michael Kearl claims, because death is omnipresent; it lies within our fantasies and dreams, language and metaphor, and is central to our thought systems and activities (Endings 3, 6). Much of what we call culture, then, comes together around the collective response to death (Bronfen and Goodwin 3), but it is only fairly recently that talking about it and studying it has become fashionable once again. During the last three or four decades, death has undergone something of a “revival”, to use Tony Walter’s term (Revival 1), with the result that in virtually all academic disciplines
today there now exists an abundance of critical inquiries into death, its relationship with culture, and the ways it is understood and represented.