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Impressions of Death

by Patrick M. Ohana 6 months ago in humanity

The Dead, Dying, and Living

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death. Oscar Wilde

It has been said that psychology has a long past but a short history. When it comes to death, its history is short indeed. Although death has been occupying the human mind in numerous fields for many centuries, psychology only began to seriously explore it in the past few decades. While Freud gave death a prominent place in the spectrum of drives and anxieties, most psychologists chose, perhaps unconsciously, to disregard it. Death only entered mainstream psychology when the study of adulthood started to give notice to the elderly and gerontology was born. The idea of death has somewhat developed psychologically, but it seems to be stuck in its latent stage.

“Death is eminently imminent,” said the narrator in Woody Allen’s Vision of Death or How to Philosophize with a Feather. We have been taught to postpone its inevitability, to repress its meaning, and to negate its existence. However, if we decide to perceive it as being similar to the unconscious, we may reach some sort of compromise. After all, like the unconscious, we can only infer and postulate about death, but never really grasp all its complexity. It is too simplistic to say that death is the end of life and life the beginning of death. It becomes somewhat circular. Some of us attempt to go beyond this initial glance at our own demise, but still view death as a negative juncture, a bad experience, a diminishing occurrence. Is death so terrible? Is immortality at all better? Perhaps what we really abhor is not death’s inevitability but its timing — untimely arrival. We want to know it better in order to control it somehow.

Studies About Death

Burton (1978) investigated the attitudes toward the death of distinguished authorities on death, which consisted of psychoanalysts, Presbyterian ministers, and authors of books about death. The authors emerged as more forthright and less telestic about death than did the other two groups. The psychoanalysts, who presumably have the deepest insight into the human unconscious, were not immune to thanatophobia. They revealed both a conscious and an unconscious reluctance to deal with death. He concluded that everyone fends against death, but that only the style of doing so seems to differ.

Churchill (1978) studied the implications of the amoral character of our attitudes about death. He argued that Western attitudes toward death, derived from inadequate Judeo-Christian ideas, were largely amoral, as our attitudes toward sexuality have been (and still are). The amorality consisted primarily of our imagining death as ahistorical. The amoral status of death in our culture helped to create secondary or derivative ethical dilemmas. Two components were identified as major forces in shaping the contemporary cultural attitudes toward the dying and death. The first was the movement of dying as a human experience, from the moral to the technical order. The second was the sacramental power of death. When these grew inherent, our reflection about dying and death turned amoral in character.

de M’uzan (1978) examined the thought “if I were dead” for its psychoanalytic meaning. He concluded that the eruption of the thought of being dead reminded an individual of the possibility of non-being, the not-I, demonstrating the capacity of the ego to err between internal and external references without losing its way.

Kovacs (1981) explored death and the question of immortality, pointing out Scheler’s declaration that the main reason for the decline of the belief in immortality could be found in the modern human tendency to deny death itself. With the help of other philosophers, he suggested that we should think like Lacordaire: “When you were born everyone was smiling and you the only one crying. Live in such a way that when you die everyone shall be crying and you the only one smiling.”

Florian and Kravetz (1983) hypothesized that individuals attributed the fear of their own death to the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal consequences of human mortality. A multidimensional measure of fear of personal death was constructed and administered to 178 males (18 to 30 years of age), uncovering a factor structure that reflected the quantitative differences between persons, who were characterized by varying degrees of religious commitment that paralleled the hypothesized aspects of fear of personal death. Florian and Kravetz (1984) also used a multidimensional and multilevel approach to study the relationship between fear of death and religious commitment. The 178 male subjects’ responses implied that religious commitment was related to heightened specific sensitivity to death at different levels of awareness.

Palgi (1983) reflected on some creative modes of confrontation with the phenomenon of death. She suggested that we were capable of lowering our death anxiety through certain social acts and creative works, and that a successful resolution of the mourning process could also bring us to a harmonious relationship with death.

O’Dowd (1984-85) presented results describing the locus of control and level of conflict as correlates of immortality orientation, using an immortality interview, the Death Anxiety Scale, Rotter’s Internal-External Locus of Control Scale, and Rotter’s Incomplete Sentences Blank, which were administered to six 35-year-old, six 45-year-old, six 55-year-old, and six 65-year-old university professors. They showed that subjects from all age groups reported a low level of conscious concern with immortality issues. However, those who accepted some form of immortality demonstrated lower conflict on the Incomplete Sentences Blank and a more internal locus of control. It was stressed that orientation toward immortality may be an important personality dimension, correlating with several aspects of personal adjustment despite the absence of more overt indications of concern.

Karasu (1985) proposed that although humans had to constantly deal with the inevitability of death, the idea of death and its importance for personal development were not well cultivated. It was argued that in general, humans were unable to accept that death and/or dying were part of the continuum of the life cycle, choosing instead to view it as a disease to be treated and conquered. The transformation of attitudes concerning death in the past 400 years was examined, along with variances in the sociological meaning of death. It was noted that while magical feelings of omnipotence constituted one of the primary defences against death anxiety, they also helped initiate the fear of it.

Thorson (1985) reviewed the literature on the humour associated with death and presented a taxonomy of death humour that dealt with undertakers, funerals, burial, necrophilia, cannibalism, death scenes and last words, memories of the departed and grief, suicide and homicide, gallows humour, and death personified. Death humour was discussed as a defence mechanism, suggesting that it gave people some control over the thought of their own mortality.

Axelrod (1986-87) pointed out that in contemporary thanatological writing, the injunction to practice death (an idea based on the assumption that by reflecting on mortality one can overcome the fear of it) was frequently encountered. The same idea appeared in numerous ancient philosophical and religious texts, such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol), Plato’s Phaedo, the writings of Epicurus, and certain segments of the Old Testament.

Jarvis and Northcott (1987) enumerated religion’s effects on morbidity and mortality along with issues that had made the study of religion and death difficult. The morbidity and mortality experiences of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, Latter-Day Saints, Parsis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Hutterites were portrayed. The reported findings were often conflicting, but it was quite evident that religion had a powerful effect on the way many people lived, on the quality of their life, and on the length of time they lived to experience that quality.

Kraft and Litwin (1987) investigated the relationship between religious belief and death anxiety, the utility of a fourfold typology with death anxiety as a dependent measure, and the relationship between death anxiety and assertiveness, using scales completed by 107 undergraduates. Their findings suggested that death anxiety was lower in subjects with strong, integral religious beliefs, and higher in subjects with more expedient religious views.

le Guen (1992) defined death as unrepresentable, deducing that since psychoanalysis is the discipline of the representable, unrepresentable could be a good definition of the unconscious. He then argued that death anxiety is analogous to castration anxiety, also unrepresentable. The unrepresented cannot be confused with the unrepresentable: a regression to phenomenology and return to structuralism. The unrepresentable cannot be known since knowledge implies representation.

McLennan and Akande (1993) studied the death anxiety and death denial of 92 Nigerian and 114 Australian students, using the Death Anxiety Scale (DAS), and a death fantasy measure of positive and negative death metaphors. Although both groups did not differ significantly on the DAS, the Nigerian subjects’ scores were significantly higher on both positive and negative death metaphors scales. It was concluded that the Nigerian subjects evidenced less death denial than the Australian ones.

Meister (1993) researched the existential concept of death, commenting that if the existentialist prospects of death were to be included in the beyond-epistemological consideration of developmental issues, it was necessary to examine the status of the concept of death as an existential given not subject to developmental changes over the life span.

Darling (1995) argued that death could be a beginning and not an end if we were prepared to challenge two basic facts about the world that have been held in the West to be incontrovertible: the first that the self is real, and the second that consciousness was produced by the brain. If these beliefs were proven to be false, death would gain a whole new meaning.

Eigen (1995) explored Freud’s psychic deadness, suggesting that the sense of being dead had become a popular clinical theme. He argued that Freud’s attempt to reduce death anxiety to castration anxiety was never fully convincing, and that the psyche did not die evenly; space may have died before time.

Lemme (1995) analyzed the literature of the 20th century on the attitudes towards death, the dying person, and grief and bereavement, maintaining that our “death-insulated generation” was a “death-denying society”, and pointing out our tendency to use euphemisms when death is at hand, and the conspiracy of silence that has developed around it. Deathwise, women are more anxious than men, and dying well has become the norm. The right-to-die movement, which includes suicide, assisted suicide, and euthanasia, made a strong appearance, and grief and bereavement adopted new meanings. She also quoted Kastenbaum’s poignant description of thanatology as “the study of death with life left in.”

Corey (1996) discussed the awareness of death and non-being as one of the basic dimensions of the human condition according to the existential approach in psychology. The existentialist viewed death positively since it gave significance to living. It was necessary to think about death if we were to think significantly about life. If we defended ourselves against the reality of our eventual death, life would become insipid and meaningless. But if we realized that we were mortal, we would know that each present moment was crucial. Our awareness of death was the source of zest for life and creativity. Death and life were interdependent, and though physical death destroyed us, the idea of death saved us. After all, those who feared death also feared life.

Impressions of Death

The above research clearly illustrates the multifaceted quality of death and the multifarious ways in which it was studied. However, we can perceive five main themes used in dealing with its direness: the attitudes towards it, its relationship with religion, a psychoanalytic approach to it, an existential view of it, and immortality in lieu of it. This handful suite of interpretations seems to somewhat diffuse death’s directness. It offers, after all, a few defences against it using both scientific and non-scientific means — everyone’s cup of coffee.

There are various attitudes towards death, with a few seemingly more positive than others. Death humour, such as Dickinson’s famous line: “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me”; new hypotheses about it, including: death is but a new beginning; and other creative methods: singing about it for one; are surely helpful in conveying its semi-levity, whereas death as disease, the fear of death, its denial, practicing it, and other characterizations of it serve more to upgrade its seriousness.

Religion uses death as a weapon. It promises a good death and a better new life to those who keep its commandments. It stresses commitment and enforces belief using one of our primal weaknesses — guilt. In the past, it also knew how to push the right buttons and frighten us. Nowadays, it has learned to exploit our real saviour — science — to fool us yet again. It has even triggered the creation of a new breed of believers — the agnostics — who claim that God is undeniable, but who at the same time, deny death.

Freudianism, mostly known as psychoanalysis, attempted to deal with death, and did it quite successfully. The concept of death instinct or death drive was brilliantly introduced by Freud, but again, like other breakthrough formulations, was met by stern criticisms. When it came to Freudian ideas, in many cases, psychologists were in denial. Like the sexual drive, the death drive also appeared to be inconceivable. How could they admit, at least to themselves, that death was but another stage, when they refused to acknowledge the powerful member between their serious thighs?

Existentialism could have been a potent death elixir if only we had the right dosage for it. Some of us take too much of it, others, apparently not enough. It becomes very effective if one comprehends its powerful simplicity. Death may exist only to render life meaningful. Our mortality could constitute our ingenuity and be the ultimate trigger for all our accomplishments. Death anxiety could mean life anxiety. We have to learn how to live before we can learn how to die. Perhaps, we are not actually afraid of death, but scared that we have yet to begin living. Life is too short.

Immortality may represent the quickest solution for the problematic issue of death. If we never die, death becomes meaningless. But in reality, immortality constitutes an escape, not a remedy. We fancy its obvious advantages, yet disregard its inconspicuous downfalls. We want to live forever, but we also require that our life be free from suffering. We want to know the future, but we have yet to learn about the past and the present. We invent numerous ways to avoid boredom, and we wish to be immortal. We look at the sky for answers when we should be searching for them within ourselves. We possess the essence of immortality, but apparently are oblivious to it. It lies in our continuous development. Other species undergo evolution through the blueprints of nature, whereas we seem to be bypassing and accelerating these long-term changes. It may not be beneficial for us in the long run, but it is part of our makeup. This fact symbolizes our immortality. We are the only species that can control their future, beating nature at its creative process. The question that remains is: Are we game?

Whether one chooses to philosophize about death with a hammer or a feather depends partly on one’s self-concept and cultural surroundings. However, neither of these coping modes seems realistically feasible. Pounding death to death only nails down life, and pampering death to death only lessens life. We strive to cope with life on a daily basis, but refuse to cope with death. We have to change our negative attitudes towards death and accept it.

Further research could always yield new perspectives on death, but it seems that most of these potential prospects would be somewhat overlapping if not misleading. No one chooses to be born, yet it is regarded as a fact of life, and most people accept it. Under normal circumstances, no one chooses to die, yet most people reject this conclusion. Death should acquire the same property as birth. Death anxiety should be scaled down to nullity. The kiss of death should be blissful.

Even in the shadow of death, two and two do not make six. Leo Tolstoy on his deathbed answering pleas that he should return to the Church


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Thorson, J. A. (1985). A funny thing happened on the way to the morgue: Some thoughts on humor and death, and a taxonomy of the humor associated with death. Death Studies, 9, 201-216.


Patrick M. Ohana

Medical writer who prefers to read and write fiction and some nonfiction, though the latter may appear at times as the former.

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