New Mindset List looks at how death is viewed in America

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Anna Marie Lux
Monday, June 16, 2014

Imagine a future when you can upload your consciousness onto a computer.

A virtual version of yourself could become immortal.

Science fiction?

The creators of the annual Beloit College Mindset List say not so fast.

Tom McBride and Ron Nief have come up with the popular Mindset List for the last 15 years. The list helps people understand what always has been considered “normal” for the freshman class.

Now McBride and Nief have come up with a new list to contemplate. They look at how death and remembrance have been viewed in America. They also speculate how death will be perceived in the future.

“From Cherubs to Cryonics: The Mindset List of American Death and Remembrance” is divided into 50-year periods, starting in 1750 and ending about 2100.

The men worked with Stopher Bartol, who founded Legacy.com in 1998. The online site gives newspaper readers a way to express condolences and share memories of loved ones.

“We provided the written material and their web designer put the online site together,” Nief said.

What results is a fascinating and often thought-provoking look at how we think about death—then and now.

One of the most startling changes over time is life expectancy. Previous generations could not have imagined how long people live today. Nor could they have imagined that condolences would be written on computers and cellphones.

During the the American Revolution, people were not expected to live past 36. Death was so common in everyday life that children feared it from an early age. By the 1800s, life expectancy still was low, but the science of vaccination reduced the chances of dying young from disease.

McBride remembers his parents teaching him the popular prayer asking God to take his soul, if he died before he woke.

“My parents had grown up when infant mortality rates were still high,” he said.

The average life expectancy rose to 48 from 1900 to 1950. During the era, an increasing number of people died in hospitals rather than at home.  Families also hired morticians to prepare loved ones for burial.

By the second half of the 20th century, life expectancy increased to 68. For the first time in history, technology created healthy older people. Traditions surrounding death also changed dramatically.

In the recent past, funerals often were in churches and performed according to set rituals. Nowadays, people submit online condolences, funerals might include rock songs, and the deceased might not be buried at all. Many people choose to cremate their remains.

In addition, the living appear to move on more quickly than they did 150 years ago.

“There used to be an extended period of mourning,” McBride said. “You were expected to wear black or you were not paying proper respect to the dead. Now, we have a different attitude. Society is more rushed, less reflective and more mobile.”

The men looked ahead to the year 2100, when the average life expectancy is expected to be almost 100.

“Some have speculated that the first baby who will live to be 150 may already have been born,” Nief said.

For children born today, technology rules.

The men predict it will rule in areas of death, as well. They know many young people sleep with their smart phones, and they project that technology will follow them to the grave.

“Asking to be buried with workable mobile phones will not be uncommon,” McBride said.

With thoughts of the future, McBride added: “I don't know if we are in the Mindset business or the mind-bending business.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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