By Vexen Crabtree 2016
Death troubles most of us. The anthropologist Ernest Becker says the thought of death provides the "mainspring of human activity" and most human behaviour is ultimately a calculation of how to avoid death1. It drives many to religion2. We prefer it hidden from sight; dealt with mostly by stoic professionals acting out formal roles and following proscribed procedures3,4. In the UK only one if four adults would want to know in advance when they are going to die5. Attempting to imagine non-existence is a dramatically difficult endeavour. Some people apparently manage to avoid the dilemma completely, whereas others struggle against incessant morbid thoughts. Philosophers and psychologists have lectured us on methods of evading mental malaise. Colin Wilson emphasizes the meaningful little things of life6; David Myers and Friedrich Nietzsche point out the vitalizing benefits of us being reminded of our mortality7,8. Of those who worry about the point of life, it is said that "extinction without meaning" is the core of the trauma9 - what was the point of it all? Some like to imagine surviving death in an afterlife, others overcome it by creating enduring contributions to Human knowledge, and many are content simply to have attempted to live life as well as they can.
“With unrelenting speed, life's scenes fly by, and the grave yawns before us.”
"Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time" by Robin Le Poidevin (2003)10
Over a hundred years ago the psychologist William James taught that normal Human beings hide death away. Later David Clark in "The Sociology of Death" (1993) devotes a chapter to the way that we in the West, have secluded all things bloody from common sight. We clinicalize death, so that only trained professionals have anything to do with the practical side of blood, slaughter, bodies, funerals and burials3,4. This denial of reality extends far and wide amongst the masses. Dead bodies do not litter the floor of battlefields in films and in computer games corpses fade away majestically and discretely. We are so far removed from the natural cycle of life that some parents even worry about how to explain to their children about where beefburgers and sausages come from. Even one's own future death hardly features in public angst, except where the subconscious, desperate, finds expression in dreams.
“We divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter-houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is.”
Many in the military face death in their line of work. But troops don't "kill people" - they engage the enemy. They don't "take lives", they eliminate targets. They don't deal death - they accomplish missions and win battles. Most of the time, all of the direct words that mean "death" and "killed" are replaced with words that are better for public relations. Why are they better? Because those involved are worried that the public don't want to be reminded about what 'the ultimate sacrifice' really is, unless that phrase refers specifically to their own mourned dead. Not once does a killed enemy soldier get reported to as a "fallen hero". The critical thinker Robert Todd Carroll continues this commentary:
“The Department of Defense is notorious for its invention and use of euphemisms to disguise ugly realities. Body bags become transfer tubes. Bombing missions become visiting sites and targets are visited or degraded, neutralized, cleansed, sanitized, or simply taken out. But we never bomb anyone.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011)11
People who deal with death, including the likes of soldiers, mortuary workers and Funeral Directors staff, must outgrow the attitude towards death where the topic is steeped in permanent seriousness. One religion that centers itself on the concept of the universal victory of death over all life is the Church of Satan. Its founder and proponent Anton LaVey writes that those who work close to death frequently often develop a profound and sanity-saving sense of humour about this dark topic. He notes that "a larger than average number of humorously-inclined professionals" can be found attending to the business of death12. When it comes to discussing the threat of death and the reality of mortality, the apparently rapid-as-a-flash wit of soldiers can seem callous and inappropriate to outsiders. In reality, their approach is life-preserving. Don't let the threat of death diminish our lives while we are still alive! Embrace death! Make fun of death by enjoying life - this is perhaps the only mastery we can ever have over death.
“Sogyal Rimpoche, a Tibetan Lama who has written on the subject of death and dying, examines the issue thus: 'At the moment of death our life becomes clear. Death is our greatest teacher. But, unfortunately, people in the West think of death only when they are dying. This is a little bit late'.”
“Life is for the living. Death, too, is for the living. If you are fascinated or entertained by death, make the most of it while you're alive. When you are really dead, it won't hold any interest at all.”
The social psychologist David Myers states that psychological research "shows that reminding people of their mortality (say, by writing a short essay on dying) motivates them to affirm their self-worth"7. He reflects the opinion of Nietzsche, 130 years earlier:
“The certain prospect of death could sweeten every life with a precious and fragrant drop of levity - and now you strange apothecary souls have turned it into an ill-tasting drop of poison that makes the whole of life repulsive.”
Nietzsche teaches that to teach that there is life after death, and to live in fear of eternal judgement, is to make sour and bitter the honest (and fragrant!) accepting of death. To face the fear of death, and accept it, and then to continue to live your life is a process that many adults go through. It is life affirming.
It will inspire people to introspectively meditate on what they think the point of life is, and more important on what they want from life.
It will inspire people who are too introspective to curb their "too much, too deep"15 approach to the eschatology of life, and embrace positive action to make life better.
A recent small-scale study (2016) found that those with "creative ambition and achievement" are affected less from thoughts of their own demise16.
“The idea of avoiding death through some kind of belief in the afterlife is one of the most powerful driving forces behind religious belief17. For many people, (1) the personal desire to survive death and (2) the personal desire for social justice both conspire to make belief in the afterlife feel right. Some historians say that belief in an afterlife is one of the universal traits of primitive Human culture that led to the founding of our religions18, and it continues to fuel the appeal of faith even today, in the 21st century. Actual beliefs have differed from culture to culture, based mostly on geographic location. Historically many cultures believed that all dead folk (good and bad) go to a single underworld, but Christianity and Islam developed their ideas of heaven and hell into a very black-and-white moralistic affair. Now, many people say their fear of hell is one of the reasons they follow their religion19. Most spiritual experiences throughout the rest of the world rest on the idea of continual reincarnation rather than on heaven. The concept of an ultimate scheme which redresses the moral imbalances of the world is common to religion both in the West and in the East. God, or Karma, works to make sure that good people are rewarded, and bad people taught a lesson. It teaches us that we have a powerful social instinct towards justice, and when we don't find it in this life, it is very soothing for us to believe that it is found in the next20. There is no actual evidence for any kind of afterlife21 and in many countries where scientific knowledge is high, belief in the afterlife has heavily declined.”
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The Daily Telegraph. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Published by The Telegraph Media Group. National broadsheet. It is one of the UK's many right-wing and traditionalist papers..
Bryant, Clifton D.
(2003, Ed.) "Handbook of Death and Dying" volume 1. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, USA.
Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation.
(1993, Ed.) The Sociology of Death. Paperback book. Published by Blackwell Publishers/The Sociological Review.
Draper, John William. (1811-1882)
(1881) History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science. E-book. 8th (Amazon Kindle digital edition) edition. Published by D. Appleston and Co, New York, USA.
(1995) Buddhism. Paperback book. Part of the TeachYourself Books series.
James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Paperback book. Subtitled: "A Study in Human Nature". 5th (1971 fifth edition) edition. Originally published 1960. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. Quotes also obtained from Amazon digital Kindle 2015 Xist Publishing edition. Book Review.
Le Poidevin, Robin
(2003) Travels in Four Dimensions: The Enigmas of Space and Time. Paperback book. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. The author is Professor of Metaphysics at the University of Leeds.
Moore & Williamson
(2003) "The Universal Fear of Death" by Calvin Conzelus Moore and John B. Williamson. Published in Bryant (2003).
(1999) Social Psychology. Paperback book. 6th ('international') edition. Originally published 1983. Current version published by McGraw Hill.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1844-1900)
(1887) On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Paperback book. Published by Random House, Inc. Translation by Walter Kaufmann published in 1969 October. The Amazon link does not link to the same version that I have quoted from..
(1956) The Outsider. Paperback book. Reissued 2001. Published by Orion Books Ltd.
YouGov. A polling organisation that also provides commentary and social/political analysis.