Talcott Parsons's entry "Death in the Western World" addresses the changing and conflicting orientations toward death in contemporary culture. Parsons sought to connect these orientations to broad cultural frameworks that have shaped Western civilization over hundreds of years. His effort was an extension of his previous writings on American orientations toward death and on more general patterns of Western civilization (Parsons and Lidz; Parsons; Parsons, Fox, and Lidz).

In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of authors argued that Americans "deny" death in a defensive manner (Mitford; Becker). They cited particular funeral and mourning customs as evidence, especially the preparing of remains to appear lifelike and peaceful for ritual viewing and the expectation that formal mourning need divert the family of a deceased person from other social obligations for only a brief time. Parsons, however, perceived that if there were a generalized denial of death, it would conflict with the pragmatic realism rooted in American culture since Puritan times.

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