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April 6, 1970

Death Enlightened: A Study of Frederik Ruysch

Author Affiliations

From the Department of Anatomy and Embryology, University of Leiden, the Netherlands.

JAMA. 1970;212(1):121-126. doi:10.1001/jama.1970.03170140077013

Man never ceases to confront the mystery of death. According to the particular cultural pattern, Death may represent a merciless enemy or a welcome friend—a grinning skeleton wielding his scythe or, wrapped in a long cloak, a serene attendant waiting patiently at the bedside of the dying.

Today, as our medical knowledge increases, Western man has to a great extent lost contact with death as a daily reality. The borderline between life and death is continually pushed back, and becomes less and less sharp. Death is in discredit, and we even tend to deny its inevitability. Belief in the hereafter, in a better life to come as a reward for the suffering of this world, are concepts disappearing from Western thought.

Not so in the 17th century, when Death was everywhere a familiar and daily guest. Epidemics raged, life expectancy was short and child mortality was high. Therapeutic resources were