Is Our Fear of Death Killing Us? Some Scholars Say Yes
Why do we fear death in modern times, and has this caused other problems for humanity? Anxieties about death may be at the root of our social ails.

Why do we fear death in modern times, and has this caused other problems for humanity? Anxieties about death may be at the root of our social ails.

Are you afraid of death? Many civilizations viewed it as an inseparable part of existence. Technology and medicine have lengthened our lives, but our world is also full of economic, social, and environmental turmoil. Why do we fear death in modern times, and has this caused other problems for humanity? As surprising as it may seem, anxieties about mortality may be at the root of our social ails.

Why We Avoid Thinking About Death

If you can’t wrap your mind around your own mortality, your brain may be to blame. Live Science mentions that our brains shield us from the idea of our own mortality. Researchers theorize that this may have evolved to ensure our survival. Greater awareness of our deaths could have made us more risk-aversive, discouraging us from engaging in activities like gathering food or finding mates.

Astonishing as this idea sounds, it’s not new. In his 1973 book “The Denial of Death,” psychologist Ernest Becker concluded that humans actively avoid thinking about their own mortality. On the Ernest Becker Foundation website, Glenn Hughes adds that mortality-related anxieties can prompt rigid identification and adherence to political, religious, or ideological beliefs. If these grow into intolerance and self-righteousness, it can lead to persecution, bigotry, and oppression.

There may be real-world evidence for Becker’s ideas. In the 2015 book “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life,” authors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski document their experiments based on Becker’s thesis. They concluded that “after people are reminded of their mortality they become much more hostile and vicious.” Speaking to journalist Carey Goldberg, Solomon added that excessive fear of death influences our judgment, limiting our compassion for others and even impacting how we vote.

Religion, Mortality, and the Afterlife

Did our ancestors’ fear of death create religion? According to New Humanist writer Lewis Wolpert, anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski proposed that religion may have helped quell human anxieties about mortality. People desire answers and certainty to cope with the unknown. Belief in an afterlife and the existence of the soul could offer comfort to the living. Rewards in the afterlife can make our struggles seem to be worth the tribulations that come with them. Maybe it isn’t so bad if we reside in Paradise after we pass away, so the logic goes.

Sheldon Solomon proposes that culture develops to provide meaning in life and combat the terror of mortality. Culture and religion are often intertwined. Religious beliefs can be expressed as empathy and inclusive attitudes towards others. Fundamentalism does the exact opposite: gatekeeping and shutting others out, reducing one’s worldview to “us against them.”

The Death Positive Movement

The Order of the Good Death is at the forefront of the Death Positive Movement. It seeks to remove social stigmas around death, suggesting that the “culture of silence” surrounding it can be broken through discussion, learning, innovation, and artistic expression. Its key goals also include empowering people to care for their dead and make their own end-of-life decisions.

Learning from other cultures can also help, especially since many non-Western cultures deal with death more openly. Ghanaians throw funeral parties and craft elaborate coffins. Cultural Colectiva’s Zoralis Pérez describes Ma’nene, an Indonesian ritual in which mummified corpses are exhumed, cleaned, dressed, and interacted with by their families. Traditional Irish wakes began when a deceased person’s female relatives washed and kept vigil near the body.

Death as Part of Life

One day, each of us will die. How we handle death is just as important as how we deal with life. Religion and philosophies may provide some comfort, but altering our cultural view of mortality is also essential. This change can help us develop better coping skills and possibly understand the roots of social problems plaguing us today.

Thanatology: The Science of Death and Dying

Thanatology, the study of death, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.

Are you afraid of death? How do you cope when a loved one dies? You may go to friends and family for solace, journal about your feelings, focus on other matters, or look to your religious beliefs for answers. These are common coping strategies in the face of death, but there’s often more lurking beneath the surface. Thanatology, the study of death and its psychological impacts, may help unpack our reactions as well as cultural and spiritual practices surrounding dying and grieving.

A Quick Overview of Thanatology

Oxford Dictionary defines thanatology as “the scientific study of death and the practices associated with it.” It is appropriately named after Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying explains that Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff stressed the importance of studying dying in the early 20th century. Yet it wasn’t until after World War II that anyone followed his suggestions. Some of the first texts include 1959’s “The Meaning of Death,” edited by Herman Feifel, and “The Psychology of Death,” published in 1972 by Robert Kastenbaum and Ruth Aisenberg.

Thanatology is an interdisciplinary field relying on science, medicine, psychology, and sociology, but it also draws from disciplines such as theological studies, history, economics, law enforcement, and philosophy. Its scope of interest covers how death impacts individuals, family groups, and societies. Besides the death event itself, thanatologists also examine the needs of terminally ill individuals and their families.

Religious Beliefs and the Death System

When a loved one dies, we rely on a collection of individuals and institutions to help. In 1977, Robert Kastenbaum coined the term “death system” for this interconnected matrix of people and groups. Depending on the society, the death system can include everything from hospitals to clergy. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying breaks down its various functions:

  • Predicting and warning about death
  • Caring for dying individuals
  • Creating funerary customs and practices
  • Consolation for living family members
  • Making sense of death
  • Determining any morals and ethics of killing

Many of religion’s primary functions exist in relation to the death system. It attempts to explain what happens after we die, then suggests beliefs and practices for attaining the best afterlife outcomes. These ideas usually reflect what each society considers fair, just, and moral.

One great example of how a death system and culture interface comes from ancient Egypt. This society believed in immortality and viewed the world in terms of “ma’at,” a guiding principle that stressed truth, order, harmony, balance, and morality. While one’s good deeds or sins may have differed slightly according to class or profession, everyone was expected to deal honorably, honestly, and kindly with others. The Ancient History Encyclopedia explains that Kemetic people expected their hearts to be weighed against the Feather of Truth. Egypt’s Great Pyramids, elaborate funerary customs, religious hierarchy, and cultural beliefs supported its death system in hopes that the deceased would fare well in the afterlife.

Thanatology in Canada

While thanatology can look at wider cultural institutions and constructs, many study the field today to provide practical help to others. Courses and study programs are offered at King’s University College and Centennial College, with continuing education options becoming more prevalent. Career applications for thanatology often include bereavement counseling, palliative care, social work, and counseling and support for terminally ill people.

For much of human history, religion and culture have often been interconnected. A society’s attitudes toward death, funerary rituals, and religious practices can reflect quite a bit about its values. These may seem like disparate components on their own, but thanatology attempts to bring them together and view them as a systematic whole. When it comes to our faiths and spiritual beliefs, a deeper examination helps us comprehend how they may provide comfort or prepare us for our own mortality.

Steps to Leaving a Family Legacy
 Leaving something behind for your loved ones, like a family legacy, will not only help them in life but will help them down the road.

A family legacy is a great way to have loved ones remember you and all that you have done.

May was National Leave a Legacy month, a public awareness campaign that encourages people to leave a gift to a favorite charity when they die. The idea was to support a cause that was near and dear to your heart with money as a lasting family legacy, kind of a footprint to be remembered by those in your community.

Most people hope that their life matters. Maybe you don’t have the money to leave to a charity. A financial gift can do a lot, but according to Billy Graham, “The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.” Although no one likes to consider their death, the best way to leave a legacy is to consider it now. Here are five things to think about when planning your legacy:

  1. What’s most important to you in your life?

Think about what you want to leave as your legacy. If your family were to think of you 10 years after you die, what would you want them to remember?

  1. Where did you find inspiration or transformation in your life’s journey?

Maybe you had a life-changing moment in a college class. Were you touched by cancer? What has made you who you are today?

  1. What blessings have you been given that you want to share with others?

These blessings could be tangible, for example, a set of chinaware given to you by your grandmother, or intangible, such as peace or kindness. If you have tangible items that your family doesn’t appreciate, think about who might use the objects. Check with local museums or charities.

  1. What causes are important to you?

Most people support at least one organization in some way. It could be a church or synagogue. Maybe you have a favorite 5K run you do each year. Your passion is your legacy.

  1. Who do you mentor?

Mentoring isn’t always a formal relationship. You can mentor people in your family, your church or your community just by being available. These relationships can last a lifetime, even after the period of mentorship is over. These people are your legacy.

Planning a Family Legacy

Your will is not a legacy, but it can be part of it. A written memorial can help your family know what you want after your death, but your legacy encompasses so much more. Whether you plan to leave a legacy or not, you will have a legacy. You may not ever think about how people will remember you, but they will remember who you were and what your passions were. You can’t really tell people how to think of you after you die, but you can leave ideas on how you want to be remembered.

Think about the people in your life who have passed on. Maybe you remember your grandpa smoking a pipe and telling stories. For some, it might be the smell of fresh apple pie coming from Aunt Mabel’s kitchen. Those are the legacies of your loved ones. It’s likely that Aunt Mabel never told you to remember her apple pie, but you did. Your children and grandchildren are likely to be the same way.

Those activities and character traits you pursue will be your legacy. What you’ve been dedicated to throughout your life is what you will be honored for. If you don’t like the legacy you are leaving, then it’s time to change your life. Maybe you will want to give money to a charity or leave a note to your family about something special to you. More importantly, think about relationships, faith and character. Are you living the way you want to be remembered?