The Universal Fear of Death That Haunts Living Minds

Calvin Conzelus Moore

Calvin Conzelus Moore

Is the fear of death universal? Anthropologist Ernest Becker seems to think so, arguing that “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” There is much about death to fear: Whether by accident, disease, or intentional infliction by another human, the path to death for all but a few fortunate humans is accompanied by pain.

Death is thus separation from everything that gives our life form; it is the loss of everything that we hold dear. The loss of a loved one to death is often one of the most emotionally painful experiences that a human can have. Even when the death is not that of a loved one, simply being a witness to death can evoke natural horror and revulsion. Furthermore, because of its seeming finality, death presents one of the most formidable challenges to the idea that human life has meaning and purpose. Given these facts, it should be no surprise that fear has been one of the most commonly expressed responses of humans to death.

Because the idea of death evokes a number of fears, researchers have suggested that the fear of death is actually a multidimensional concept. Hoelter and Hoelter (1978) distinguish eight dimensions of the death fear: fear of the dying process, fear of premature death, fear for significant others, phobic fear of death, fear of being destroyed, fear of the body after death, fear of the unknown, and fear of the dead. Similarly, Victor Florian and Mario Mikulincer (1993) suggest three components of the death fear: intrapersonal components related to the impact of death on the mind and the body, which include fears of loss of fulfillment of personal goals and fear of the body’s annihilation; an interpersonal component that is related to the effect of death on interpersonal relationships; and a transpersonal component that concerns fears about the transcendental self, composed of fears about the hereafter and punishment after death. Because of the complexity of death fears, some authors suggest using the term death anxiety to describe the amorphous set of feelings that thinking about death can arouse.

Because of the complexity of death fears, scholars have debated whether such fears are natural or whether they are social constructs. The most common view that runs through the history of thought on death is that the fear of death is innate, that all of life tends to avoid death, and that the underlying terror of death is what drives most of the human endeavour. The anthropological, philosophical, and psychoanalytic perspectives offer evidence and rationales that the fear of death is a natural response, given all the attempts of biological organisms to preserve life. Throughout human history, fear has been the universal response to death. In 1889, the cultural anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor stated, “All life fears death, even brutes which do not know death.” Aristotle (1941) said that “plainly the things we fear are terrible things” and referred to death as “the most terrible of things.” According to the anthropologist Ernest Becker (1973), of the various factors that influence behaviour, one of the most important is the terror of death. The most common view, then, is that fear is one of the most natural reactions to encounters with death.

On the other hand, some sociologists argue that the fear of death is not necessarily innate; rather, it is a learned reaction. Vernon Lewis (1970) states that the fear of death is the result of an individual’s learning experiences and not an internal phenomenon. Kathy Charmaz (1980) notes that social and cultural conditions may give rise to the fear of death. The industrialism and individualism of modern society, for example, may create the fear of death: “The rise of individuality with the illusion of self- sufficiency fosters an emergence of the fear of death. In societies that foster individuality, fear of death logically follows.” In traditional and rural cultures, on the other hand, the fear of death is not as strong. Such arguments seem to suggest, however, that if the cultural response in a given society is not to fear death, individuals within that culture do not respond to death with fear. This is a premise that requires empirical validation. Perhaps the most useful conception of the fear of death may be that it is a variable subject to manipulation by social context. A society’s culture may offer explanations of death that either repress or encourage fears about death according to the needs of the society.

In further articles, we will explore cultural responses to the fear of death. The fact that humans are symbolic beings allows us to construct symbolic systems that preserve the meaning and significance of life in the face of death. An examination of various cultures throughout history suggests that an underlying fear of death has always been a major organizing force in human society. Because the social construction of meaning is a fundamental element of culture, an examination of the universal fear of death and cultural responses to that fear offers us an opportunity to survey the vast human experience with death, from the earliest beginnings of society to the present. In that regard, we examine here the major theoretical contributions to our understanding of the fear of death and its relation to human culture, from anthropological studies of preliterate societies to the religious, philosophical, and psychoanalytic systems of more advanced societies.

Every culture has generated a system of thought that incorporates the reality and inevitability of death in a manner that preserves the social cohesion of that culture in the face of the potential socially disintegrating aspects of death. Early human societies developed religious systems, including ancestor worship, that bridged the divide between the dead and the living and portrayed death not as an end, but as a transition to another world that is still very much connected to the earthly one. The Greeks used reason and philosophy to deal with the fear of death. Early Jews incorporated a variety of practices into their religious beliefs surrounding cleanliness and purity to stave off unwanted death. Christians of the Middle Ages gave themselves over to the reality of death by associating the death of the body with the freeing of the spirit to spend eternal life with God. Religious systems of the Eastern world evolved ideas of continual rebirth and the attainment of freedom from the cycle of rebirth through enlightenment or nirvana. In each case, the symbolic system accords death a place in society that offers to mean to the individual and prevents the society from lapsing into complete nihilism in the face of death.

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