Cultural Fear of Death
I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Psalm 82:6-7
We live in a culture that is, in my opinion, unreasonably fearful of death. We even avoid the word, saying someone passed away or crossed over. We shelter dead bodies from view, at least until they have been cleaned, made up, surgically altered, and dressed to look as alive as possible. We have learned to consider death as annihilation, and who wants to be annihilated? No wonder we fear death so. We celebrate those who exceed their predicted life expectancy as if they have won the lottery. Death is an even less appropriate topic for family gatherings than religion or politics. It is not so much that our feelings about death are divisive, but that the topic itself is so frightening and unpleasant. Our cultural fear of death makes it difficult to find ways to embrace death as the inseparable part of life that it is. I confess here that I am not in a condition as to believe I am close to death, other than relentlessly growing older. If I were in a precarious, physical state, my feelings might well differ, so I offer the following without judgement.
I am not saying we shouldn’t take reasonable measures to maximize our time on earth. We are here for a purpose, and we should continue to serve that purpose for whatever time is given us to do so. And our purpose, particularly as we age, has less to do with what we do than with who we are and how our being impacts others. My concern has to do with the irrational belief that death is the worst thing that can happen and must be avoided at all costs – financial, emotional, physical, and spiritual. Let’s face it – death is expensive, and the longer it is prolonged, the more expensive it becomes, both for those with the means to pay for it, and for society when individuals have insufficient resources.
What bothers me most about our collective fear of death is not so much the actual fear of death itself, which I think is reasonable. What lies beyond the life we are familiar with on earth is largely unknown and unavailable to our most accessible levels of consciousness, so it is natural for the thought of death to be uncomfortable. What I believe is so damaging is the sense of separation that underlies our cultural fear of death. When we consider ourselves independently functioning and free of intimate bonds with others, we fall prey to many unhealthy beliefs and attitudes about life, love, and faith. Chief among these is an overvaluation of any individual life. All lives are valuable, of course, but none are irreplaceable. It is interesting to me that leaders of nations used to be at the front lines of battles, inspiring and fighting alongside the other soldiers. When a leader fell in battle, another leader emerged and took over. Now, of course, our leaders, including many of our generals, are well removed from the dangers of the front, and our political leaders are shielded from nearly every human act of violence. The personal consequences of decisions about war are very different when one is weighing one’s own life and livelihood with the other pros and cons of engaging in warfare. But I digress…
It is fine to consider ourselves uniquely special as long as we grant the same uniquely special tag to everyone and everything in God’s creation. It is fine to take some measure of pride in what we have accomplished as long as we understand and acknowledge that the part we played was only one part and that any successes we have are ultimately communal efforts. Whenever we overvalue our individual lives we deny the interrelated web that makes up the tapestry of life on and beyond earth and act as though we are not an inseparable part of it. If we were actually alone, death would be tragic. That separation is exactly what leads to our fear that the being we call us will be annihilated at our death. We fear losing the attachments we so enjoy and depend upon.
What we can only know by faith (but that people of faith should know) is that our work, our relationships, and this being we call us do not end with the life of this physical body. Rather, we take on a resurrected body and continue living, albeit on another plane of existence. Life does not end, even life as we know it, but it does change form.
More next week…
This is the 27th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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