THE FEAR OF DEATH
Click here to: Return to Main Page
Usually about 50% of the students in each of the classes answered "Yes" to the question, "Are you afraid to die?" That fear is based on not wanting to go through the dying process, the worry about what will happen after death such as will you be stuck in a place you do not like forever, or the concern about leaving people behind that love and/or need you. About 20% fear being associated with the dead, that is seeing dead bodies, etc. From the questionnaire, response to the question about their opinion as to what age people fear death the most, 24% thought it would be from 0-12 years old, 10% from 13 to 19, 12% from 20-29, 33% from 30-50, and 21% chose those over 50. Reasons given for the 0-12 and 13-19 are: the fear of loosing both parents (separation anxiety) increases the death fear in the child, and because children do not understand death they fear it. It's the fear of the unknown. About 1/2 of each class admited to having memorable separation anxiety.
When analyzing the "over 50 death fear," the students thought it was related to the fact they are so close to death the fear increases. The truth of the matter is the group of 30 to 50 year olds are the ones with the greatest fear of death. They have contributed their share of toil on the planet and now it is time for their reward (retirement, relaxation, etc.). To suddenly be confronted with death ia a real tragedy. That is the responsible agent for the heightened fear. Also, as so aptly brought out in class, the individuals at this age oftentimes try for that one last fling in order to try to beat out the suddenly-realized approach of the end of their life. Men around the age of 40 may resort to affairs (to prove their vitality), major changes in lifestyle, daredevil acts, and other abrupt changes in behavior.
When students were asked how they would prefer to die about 40% chose in their sleep in a quiet, peaceful, and painless manner. Another 30% chose a traumatic death, something that would be quick and would instantly eliminate dwelling on the fear of death while facing certain death. Some actual quotes are:
There are always a few that are somewhat humorous: "Shot in the stomach"; "I would like to die an extraordinary death like jumping off the World Trade Center."; "A pleasant death like an overdose of smac (heroin) or a heart attack during orgasm."; "I would like to have a death that is violent and involves a lot of blood."; "Excessive intercourse."; "Having sex while dropping from an airplane."; "A fast suicide.", etc.
The majority of the class agreed the fear of death in America is increasing. The topic is rarely discussed at home. In fact, 50% of the students said it is rarely or never discussed, 39% said it is occasionally discussed, and only 11% said it is frequently discussed. Commercial cards sent to the bereaved rarely use the word "death" and instead substitute words such as "sympathy" and "gone to sleep". To describe death, euphemisms are resorted to such as "Called to God", "passed away", "the departed", "the deceased", etc. Now most of us live longer and see little death. It is very uncommon for a student to have witnessed a person dying, or to even have a terminally ill person in the same home. As a rule the dying are isolated in America. They are left to the specialists to handle in hospitals, nursing homes and adult homes. What a contrast this is to 19th century America. It is well illustrated in the Introduction to Tolstoy's book, The Death of Ivan Ilyich:
"When children were born and parents died in the actual marriage bed, where first and last cries were heard in the very same room, where the first things looked at were often the last things seen, where the corpse is where the lover's body moved, when the entire intimacy of life from start to finish was confined to the family house and not to the maternity wings, terminal wards and funeral parlors, death itself possessed dimensions and connotations that are now either forgotten or stifled. Everyone until recently knew the actual smell of death. In a big family during the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for it to be an annual smell and to take its position in the odorous year along with springtime beeswaxings, summer jams, and winter fires. When death came, it was the family who dealt with it, not the specialists. Death's mysteries and its chores became inseparable."
Back in the 1800's the main room in the house was the parlor. It was commonly used for displaying the dead body of a family member. That body was prepared by family members. In 1910 Edward Bock, the editor of the Ladie's Home Journal, declared death to be non-important for 20th Century America. Because of the rapid advancement of science, death would soon be conquered. He therefore declared the word "parlor" was to fall into disuse and should be replaced by the word, "living room".
Mourning was discouraged after World War I. That war left many people in mourning. The Queen of England recommended all mourning be stopped. Post mortem photos were discouraged. Death was to become an old-age problem to be dealt with by specialists. The absence of death made it into more of an unknown, and therefore, more fearful. Incidentally, for the first time in 70 years we are again seeing people dying prematurely because diseases such as AIDS, and this is having a tremendous impact on society!
There are a host of other factors heightening the fear of death because of its removal from the public sector. There have been no public executions in America since the thirties, we have had no wars on our soil since the Civil War, the dead are swept away as quickly and discreetly as possible, and we are obsessed with remaining young (and avoiding death).
When I was young I was taken to White Plains (NY) Hospital because of a .22 caliber bullet wound in the leg. The wound was minor (although the slug had to be removed by surgery) and I recovered quickly. On one trip to the bathroom, a code was called for a patient in another room dying from cardiac arrest. Specialists passed me at top speed and surrounded the heart patient in the vain hope of resuscitating him . When he was declared dead all patients were required to return to their rooms and the doors were tightly closed. I went unnoticed in the hall and watched as the decedent was wrapped in a shroud and then placed on a gurney and carefully wheeled to the freight elevator to be taken to the morgue which was in the bowels of the hospital past the laundry room. Death signals a defeat for a hospital. Getting the body out of sight as quickly as possible is a primary objective.
One of the anthology of readings in the book , The Individual, Society, and Death, by David W. Berg and George G. Daugherty, is titled, "How America Lives with Death". It was written by Kenneth L. Woodward and strongly shows how our culture makes death quite distant:
"It was 8:15 Wednesday morning, and the patient in room 249 was dying, on schedule. On Monday, nurses had moved him to a private room; it is easier to close a door on the dead than to curtain a corpse in a crowded ward. The morgue attendant had calculated him in the week's projected workload. A memo was posted on the bulletin board in the doctor's lounge: 'Dr. Lewis needs eyes.' At the morgue another notice appeared: 'Dr. Davis needs kidneys.' A red border on the patient's hospital file card signaled the Roman Catholic chaplain. On Tuesday, the chaplain administered the last rites of the church and rubber-stamped the fact on the card. Hospital officials had obtained early permission for an autopsy; the next of kin might be out of town at the crucial moment.
"By 9 a.m. Wednesday the patient in room 249 was dead. The nurse closed the corpse's eyes and summoned the orderlies. The physician notified the relatives. Within fifteen minutes, a temporary death certificate had been signed (pending confirmation of the cause of death), a 'Release of Personal Belongings' form had been completed, and the body had been washed, plugged, trussed, wrapped in sheets and labeled. The morgue attendant loaded the body onto his rolling stretcher, waited considerately for an empty elevator, then rolled it past the maintenance and laundry rooms (by custom the staff averted their faces) to a morgue icebox in the basement.
"At noon on Thursday, autopsy and legal forms completed, room 249's late occupant arrived at the mortuary - minus his eyes and kidneys. He was drained, embalmed, waxed, rouged, shaved, dressed, and wheeled into the 'slumber room.' At 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, after a 35-minute church service, the Duraseal coffin was lowered by machine into the prepurchased cemetery plot and buried.
"Every day, more than 5,000 Americans die. A favored few succumb at home;...and 75 per cent - like the patient in room 249 - are routinely processed out of existence through the labyrinthine corridors of crowded institutions. But wherever or however death comes, Americans try to handle it with cool , efficient dispatch. Death in America is no longer a metaphysical mystery or a summons from the divine. Rather, it is an engineering problem for death's managers - the physicians, morticians and statisticians in charge of supervising nature's planned obsolescence. To the nation that devised the disposable diaper, the dead are only a bit more troublesome than other forms of human waste."
In Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's book, On Death and Dying, she states the terminal patient "May cry for rest, peace, and dignity, but he will get infusions, transfusions, a heart machine, or tracheotomy if necessary. He may want one single person to stop for one single minute so that he can ask one single question - but he will get a dozen people around the clock, all busily preoccupied with his heart rate, pulse, electrocardiogram or pulmonary functions, his secretions or excretions, but not with him as a human being."
The fear of death can be used effectively to control others. In the schools there was a group known as SADD - Students Against Driving and Drinking. The group presented an assembly every year that shows the rest of the student body the gruesome and tragic consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol. This is an example of using the fear of death to affect a change.
Teenagers have very strong feelings of omnipotence and immortality. The belief in self-death is at a low point in their lives. Before the age of 15 the belief one will die is stronger than in the 16 to 21 year olds, and as one approaches 40 it also increases at a slow, but steady rate. After 40 the belief rises much more rapidly as certain abilities decrease and as friends and acquaintances die. As one would expect, the fear of death is also at the low point between the years of 15 to 21. Because of that kids do the damnest things. If your fear of death is low at 18 you have the potential to become a good combat soldier. The fighting forces do not want you at 40! Driving like a maniac, taking drugs for kicks, wanting to die a heroic or violent death, and generalized thrill-seeking and other forms of hedonism are all examples of a low death fear. However, once a teenager is forced, let's say by a physician's prognosis, to confront their own mortality it is devastating. To have a fellow classmate die can also turn the teenager's life upside-down, as well as creating complete chaos in the school. Causing the death of another (by accident, or whatever) may also leave damaging scars. Worrying about an asteroid hitting the Earth and causing mass extinction, as has happened, is of little concern when the belief in self-death is at a low point. Students were asked on a survey if they thought death was a pleasant or unpleasant process. From that question, 39% thought of it as unpleasant and 31% regarded it as pleasant! One girl wrote, "[Death] is unpleasant because I am afraid of dying, but pleasant because I don't want to see the world destroyed."
In one class a veteran of the war in Vietnam came to speak and while doing so became extremely agitated when he was asked if he ever had to kill children during the war. The stress was quite obvious and prevented him from ever returning to speak to another class! During the war it was known by our forces the Vietcong would strap bombs to children so they could be detonated when they got close enough to an American soldier to kill him. So, when our troops saw a kid approach, even if was an innocent child looking for friendship or candy, the troops had to shoot them. Couple this with the typical soldier's age, his feelings of immortality, his limited death fear, the number of his buddies that were killed around him, and possibly involvement with drugs would certainly explain the over abundance of psychological problems found in some veterans returning home.
Sigmund Freud once stated we cannot conceive of our own death. This is evident by the inability to dream of your own death. However, some people see themselves at their own funeral while dreaming. That is not the same as dreaming of one's actual death. When they see themselves at the funeral they also see themselves doing living things, such as observing people going by their casket, crying over their death, etc. It has been my experience, at the moment of death in a dream, such as hitting the ground after falling off a cliff, one immediately awakens. In fact people have found thenselces on the floor after falling out of the bed. Over the years I have found only one student that has claimed to have dreamed of his death where the dream ended in total blackness or a void.
There is a great danger here: Teenagers having a low fear of death may use suicide as a form of communication. Because the immortality feeling is strong, suicide can be used as a form of revenge. "If I kill myself I will get even with my girlfriend for breaking up with me. I will be so pleased that I will be laughing in her face as she passes by my casket!" The concept of dying is so repressed that incredible chances may be taken.
So, what is the ultimate purpose for your existence? Answers from the classes varied. Some were not sure. Some felt they were here to educate others. Others felt it was to reproduce and protect our species. Some felt we were here to make ourselves feel good or as gigantic experiment to prove our worth. Other answers included to have sex, that it is a test to see if we are going to Heaven or Hell, it's beyond our capabilities of understanding, or to become one with destiny. Some thought we are predisposed to do what we do.
Assuming some power was able to descend and inform them of their ultimate purpose, about 50% of the students would like to know. The other half would not to hear the answer. Of those that would like to know why they are in existence, almost all of them believe they would be happier after finding out. Some felt, if they knew their purpose then they would die after fulfilling it because there would be nothing left to do after that. On the contrary say others, if one knows their purpose and then fulfills it, the burden would be removed so other pleasant pursuits may be sought after. In fact, one might have euphoria over doing the job and then being free to do whatever.
Generally parents are not doing a good job with their children regarding the subject of death. Although the overwhelming majority of the students say they would allow their children to participate in the funeral rituals (11% would not allow it), as adults they usually don't. (2008 Note: After attending funerals where relatives of Death Education students were involved they usually have - not force - their kids involved in most of the funeral ritual.) Many kids are sequestered and not allowed to go to the funeral home and/or the burial. Usually this is done without explanation. Much of this has to do with the uncomfortable feelings adults have about death and children. The common thought is that children cannot handle death. It is "too much for them." After teaching Death Education for several years, my 4 year-old daughter expressed a desire to go with my wife and I to the funeral of an elderly gentleman friend of the family. I was nervous about the idea other people would think I was doing it because of the course, to prove a point, or that I was traumatizing my daughter. On the way she asked several questions about what was about to happen. I had difficulty answering them. In the funeral home nothing unusual happened. My daughter's reaction was one of sadness, but she found this part of life to be very valuable. I was the one having the anxiety and learned a great deal about kids and death because of this incidence.
One of the students in my class wrote a most beautiful letter about her father dying:
"I found it easier to write down what happened when my father died then to tell about it.
"Some of the moments are vague and might be distorted but that is basically what happened.
"Any questions you might have feel free to ask me when you read this to the class or whatever.
"If you keep this to read to future classes please don't mention my name.
"Finally it's here! The first day of summer after 4th grade. My mother, my stepfather, and I were all awake pretty early in the morning. After a while there was a knock at the door. It was my father's parent looking very grim. My mother sent me to my room so we could talk. I went sensing that something was wrong, but not knowing what it was. After awhile I came out of my room and they had gone. My mother was very upset. When I saw she was crying, I knew something had happened to my father.
"When I found out what had happened I wanted to run away. My father had killed himself. I didn't know much about these things, I was only 9 years old.
"Later that day my mother made some calls and told her family what happened. They, of course, gave their sympathy.
"Two days later was the funeral, no wake just a funeral. My Mom, Step-dad, and I went to the church. The service went much too quickly. Then my Mom and I went outside to 'greet' everybody. Most people that knew her hugged her but only shook my hand, not knowing what to say. (What do you say to a nine-year-old whose father killed himself 2 days before!?) Then it was on to the cemetery. I don't remember how we got there or what was said. When we got there, I remember my stepfather wearing mirrored sunglasses so no one would see any of his grief. When the prayers were finished my stepfather took a handful of dirt and threw it on the coffin and walked away, as if to be amazed.
"The next week is very vague. I do remember the cards that were sent with all the pretty flowers on them that were supposed to ease the pain. I also remember that the teachers in his high school made a fund and raised money for me and Mom. Another thing that is very clear is that one day I was watching Laverne and Shirley and I laughed for the very first time in quite a while, and my mom told me that it wasn't funny so I watched the rest of the show in silence.
"After everything was pretty much over and done with the arguments started about who gets what (his family wanted everything). All I have to remember my father by is a couple of army medals and a picture.
"February 1986 - My mother and I are talking and I find out that her sister, her brother, and her parents and their families never came to the funeral or talked to us for a long time. Just about 9 years later I find all this out. It bothers me now that they didn't have the courtesy to show up. But what can I do about it? Nothing."
Because adults show anxiety about death and tend to shield children from it, the kids must turn to other sources to learn what they can about the subject. Their education is distorted. Their knowledge is incomplete. Their sources are biased. Most people in America die of old age but kids learn about death from television, movies newspapers, and video games and those sources major in deaths of violence. Kids spend more time watching television and movies than they do in school. They see rapes, murders, body counts, crashes which amount to thousands of killings. Death in the media does not take on the element of reality, nor does it seem final. Without realizing death is final can cause a teenager to "experiment" with it through thrill-seeking and attempting suicide. Wise parents let their kids share grief and make death an important part of life.
There was a fifth-grade teacher in a neighboring community that took his class to a funeral home as part of a career-discovery program. The teacher was told by the principal he was not to "traumatize" the students by letting them see a dead body. When they got to the home the funeral director gave them a sincere talk about death and then asked for questions. One child asked if he could see a dead person. It just so happened there was a body ready to be viewed and the funeral director had gotten permission from the family for the class to view it. Against the principal's wishes (and some of the parents) they viewed the body. Some knelt and prayed, and one boy touched the body after getting permission to do so. It was all very natural and very beautiful!
As a rule, death is a process that can make a person very lonely in America. Very few would ever lead someone to believe they are about to die when they are not. Letting a person know that someone has a life-threatening disease usually causes avoidance or further contact with the doomed. This is encouraged by getting the dying away from the living by placing them outside the home, and then relegating their care to technicians, who in turn tend to treat the patient as a thing. Dying can be dehumanizing and lonely. The dying usually have very little right to their opinion (e.g., if they express a desire to commit suicide and it is ignored or arhues against), and the patient might be kept in the dark on what their life-threatening condition is all about!
"Death is an important part of life," states Yale's psychiatrist, Dr. Robert J. Lifton, "and denying death has grave psychological costs." He goes on to say, "Suppressing death limits our general feelings and vitality, and because of high technology and the search for youth, our society suppresses death more than any other in human history." He further suggested that death is much more manageable when it is part of our rituals. "However, we have not been close to death because of: hospital structures being what they are, and being distant when death is takes place. Children are often excluded, and we do not generally take death and mourning too seriously." Justifying the latter, Dr. Lifton mentions how we downplay emotional expressions around death, funeral ritual, crying, and then try to pass over a death very quickly and lightly.
Contributing to the fear of death is the notion man is able to cure "all" things except death. So, when the students were asked at what age they would like to die, if they had the choice and maintained good health, produced the following graph:
Those that chose "Forever" wanted to do so because they could then accomplish all those things they knew they would not be able to in do in a short life. Those against living forever disliked the idea they would then see many friends die, and to make new friends would be similar to trying to make friends now with someone that was 2 years old. Trying to get a job at the age of 700 might be difficult. Your relatives would all be gone. Your chances of coming in contact with a catastrophe would be greatly increased, and life would probably be quite boring after such a long period of time.
Job (in the Old Testament) said, "Death is the King of Terrors." The fear of death drives us all and controls our societies. Many people on this Earth are suffering from terrible conditions. If the fear of death were removed from man there would be mass suicide. Without the fear of death there would be little law and order, and no domination by one over another would be possible. Hitler could not have risen to power. Wars would be obsolete and meaningless. Legal verdicts would be toppled. And, our moral code would be quite different because it is now based on our fear of death.
Even some of the smallest actions we take in our daily life are based on the fear of death. For example, let's say you decide not to stop at a stop sign on the road. Why should you stop in the first place? Aside from the obvious reason that you might get slammed by another vehicle and killed, it keeps you from being hassled by a law enforcement officer. Confronting the cop could result in your death and that is to be avoided at all costs. Try going through the stop sign, being chased by a cop, and trying to outrun the squad car. Or, get stopped and then tell the cop you don't care, rip up the ticket and throw the pieces in his face. Following that, refuse to get out of the car or to go with the officer to the station. If you keep it up your brain will subconsciously be revealing the course chosen might result in your death at the end of the road. So, it is better to stop at the stop sign. To heighten the fear of death, and help to keep you submissive, when the cop approaches the car it will be done with the utmost care (that's the cop's fear of death) while wearing "big death" on the gun belt and "little deaths" peppered along the belt. Some officers see fit to raise the level of the death threat by displaying a shotgun while on duty!
One of the most amazing things I've found is that courses in psychology avoid mentioning the fear of death. When one examines the index of most psychology books there is not one reference to it. Even psychiatry avoids the subject. You will find references to acrophobia, claustrophobia, kathisophobia (the fear of sitting down), but not thanatophobia. That is truly amazing because I believe most of the neurosis in America arises from our incapacity to accept death, or as a reaction to the fear of death. In fact, a basic anxiety is created over the question, "Do I have an authentic potentiality for being in this world?"
Margaret Mead is credited with the following thought: "When a person is born we rejoice. When a person marries we jubilate. When a person dies we act as if nothing has happened." Sometime in the life of a child they must acquire this messed up psychology toward death. A child is not born with intense death fears. A child is not born with the attitude that death is bad and life should be spent trying to beat it out. Granted they are born with pain receptors that will keep them away from dangerous elements in their environment, but that does not translate into the great death avoidance found in adults.
Children are thirsty for knowledge. They constantly ask questions about everything they can think of and everything they interact with. But, as with sex-talk many years ago, kids cannot obtain factual information about death. There is a classic adult feeling that children cannot conceive of death in any form so it is better to not discuss it. If a kid starts asking questions about death to a parent the typical reply is, "Don't talk about that now.", "We're eating so why do you want to talk about that now?", "Go ask your father.", "What on Earth are you talking about that for?", or " That is not a subject that should be discussed at this time." Parents unwittingly do real damage to kids when they respond to death questions differently than other questions. They set the kids up from the earliest age for a very negative death attitude.
There are some other well-known facts about kids: They do not believe their own death is possible. Up to the age of 9 or so, they usually believe death never happens naturally or by chance. Since there has to be a reason behind every death, if they are not given one because they are excluded, they will them make it up. If the reason is thought to be related to what they did it can lead to dangerous guilt. And, death is usually treated as a symbol, i.e., it's not factual. For example, when kids play cops and robbers the "death" of the opponent usually symbolizes winning and little more. A psychiatrist caused shear panic in his son by actually falling down on his front lawn when the kid pretended to shoot him with a toy gun.
Maria H. Nagy, did extensive research on children of different ages regarding their thoughts on death. Although the divisions are not absolute, she found children up to 5 years old tend to think death is temporary and reversible. It is similar to sleep - you wake up or you get better. A typical reason to explain why a body doesn't move is only because it is in the coffin. Children between the ages of 5 and 9 tend to think of death as a person. Death can be a skeleton that comes to get bad children. Death can assume frightening characteristics. At 9 years old death is usually thought of as a process and it is inevitable. This is carried through the teenage and adult years. In some ways it depends upon the upbringing of the child. Inner city kids usually think of death as happening by a violent means, whereas others think of it as caused by more natural reasons such as old age.
When I asked the kids in my class to go home and talk to young people in order to get their feelings toward death some are nervous about doing it. One girl said she was reluctant to ask the child she babysits for questions about death for fear the parents would find out. I asked her if she would have the same fear about talking about spoons and napkins. "It's not the same thing," she says! "It's not the same thing because of the way you're going to approach it - if you talk about death to a kid in a matter of fact way, that is no different then if you were talking about finding toadstools, it will be treated the same." It's the way it's approached. It must be done without anxiety which is hard because of our deep-seated desire to avoid the subject. Kids want to talk about death and will do it in the most natural and pleasant way! Some of the students entered the next class with tales of conversations that they had with young children after the last class. They were amazed as to how easy and natural it was. They were surprised to find the child does fit in the Nagy mold. Try it yourself!
Each year we invited one of our 4th grade classes from another school in our district to write an essay on, "What is Death?" The teacher then sent the essays to our class where they were reviewed. Several days after the review the kids are invited to come to the high school to interact with the kids in the Death Education class. The kids involved were about 9 years old so some had matured into the adult way of thinking about death, and some were still in the personified ("death-man") mindset.
The essays they composed were priceless. They were usually matter-of-fact and were done without hesitation. Here are a few of the many received to give the reader a insight into the thinking of a 4th grader. They are quoted exactly as written!
"age 10: After being, 1. Death is being killed. It is comiting sewiside. It is getting stabed, It is dieing."
"10 1/2: Death it is a bad thing that ever happen. It is not throw that when you die that you come back to life. I hate to think about dieing."
"age 9: When you die you can't smell, breath, talk, or move. Is all you do is lie there in a coffin. Then your soul goes up in Heaven."
"Death 1. I think death is scary and very sad. 2. The reason I think that is because you'll never have fun again and never do anything again, and never see anyone thats what's sad about it. 3. What's scary about it is when people say that there skelton comes out of the ground on Halloween night" (Note: When this girl was a freshman in high school I invited her to visit the Death class for a reason unrelated to what was to take place. I was reading past compositions from the 4th graders to the students, and then asked this girl what she thought of a few of them. Without her knowing the author I read her composition from 5 years before and asked her to comment. She thought it was somewhat silly. I showed her the actual document while covering the name, and she still had no idea it was hers. Needless to say, she was totally surprised to learn that she was the author. In fact, she could not believe it!)
"Death Death is not nice. I do not like it. It is bad"
"age 9: Death Death is like a deep sleep. Where your heart and brain stop. It's like your heart isn't there anymore."
"age 11: Death 1. I think death is where people go to sleep and never wake up. 2. Death can be where people take to many drugs and blow their minds. 3. Death also can be where people get hit by a car or truk. I think death is a terrible thing."
"Death Grade 4: 1. I don't think you should worry. 2. Sometimes I wish I was with god. 3. I dont worry because you have to die in your life. 4. I think its okay. I dont care if I die. 5. I dont want to die but It would be fun when you do."
"Death age 9: I think death is stuiped. I also think it is dumb. I don't like death"
"9 age: Death is diying. I hate diying. It is not nice."
"10 1/2: It is sad. It's like a damp cave with lots of bats. Like a monster. and like a night maer."
"turning ten but I am nine: Death is a thing that happens to a person when they get real old or it can happen by them being hit by a car. Death lasts forever."
"Grade 4: Death is terrible because my sister is dead. But I think death is dumb."
"Grade 4: "Death" Death is when the body starts to rot a bit It is then of no longer use to the soul. The soul then passes on to heaven. There in heaven, your soul lives in peace, away from war and anger."
"Grade 4: I think death is rather stupid. Pepul shoudent die. But if they did not die it would be to crowded in the world."
"I think death in movies is gory but I knoe it is not real. Real death I don't like. When my great grandmother's sister died I didn't like it. I was very sad. I still don't like death."
"I Think Death is? 1 Some thing thats good and bad. 2 I hate death my grandpa died."
"I think death will be like falling down and hurting yourself but never waking up. I hope my death will be really quick so I don't know what happened."
"Grade 4: Dead is when some one is died. Jesus rose from the Dead."
"Death I think death is real bad. I don't like it because it is kind of hard on me. My father died when I was 3 years old. But I do wish he was alive because I miss him." (Note: This student has been in many altercations with teachers in the high school after entering the 9th grade. She has a super-chip on her shoulder, and an extremely low self-esteem. Academically, she is very difficult to work with.)
"I think that death is something that is awful. I could never go to a funeral. No one in my family ever died that I know of."
"I think death is a scary feeling inside me. Death I think is a hard thing too face. Death is scary frightening. A feeling of like geting shot in the stumick"
"What is Death? Grade 4: comp Death means a lot of things to me. I was eight when my grandfater passed away. So my hole famly started to crie. I tride to hold in the tears but I cudn't. I don't talk about death to my family."
"Grade 4: composition What is Death? Dear Mr. Campbell, I never had any close friends or relatives die. I think when you die you go to a different world were every things different. People are more like alieans. I also think a good age to die is 80. I wnt to die by juping of a cliff. I think it would be fun."
"Grade 4: What is Death? Dear Mr. Campbell I think death is not very nice for any one even you. Death is a vay bad exsperins for kids to learn abot. My story When I was 3 my mom dropt my goldfish in the sink and every day whan I got up I put fishfood in the sink. to. The death class"
"Grade 4: Composition What is Death? Dear Mr. Campbell, I think death is when you or someone or something dies. I know that because when I went on vacation and left my 26 year old brother with my bird Tweety. Tweety died. Then we went to Lake Gorge and left my hamster with my brother, big mastake. My hamster, Fluffy, died. It took me three weeks to find out. Then we went to Lake Gorge again. We left my brother in charge. When we got back my rat had a tumer and my dog almost died."
"What is Death? I think death is scary. I always think of it and I say to myself I will never be alive. I want to live to 100 like my Great grandma. When my fish died I cremed it in the fire place. I never talk about death. But always think of it."
"I think death is sad. My grandfather died on Christmas Day. It was the sadest momont of my life. I hate when people die. It's very sad." Note: I was conducting a seminar in Death and Dying for an adult group and read this composition to the group. After the session was over, a woman came to me and asked to see it. She was quite anxious. After looking at the handwriting she realized the author was her daughter. The daughter never expressed those feelings to anyone in the family. She was despondent over the grandfather's death but internalized the feelings. The mother never knew until the reading of the composition how deeply affected her daughter was. She wanted a copy of the letter and was planning to use it to help correct the situation. Her daughter was in high school at the time.
When the 4th grade kids visited the high school Death Education class they sat in the front of the classroom facing the Death Ed students. Their chairs were lined up across the front. The dialogue started by reading excerpts of their letters for all to hear and then they were asked for a response to the points made. The Death Ed students were allowed to ask questions at any time, and the kids from the fourth grade could do the same. The following represents some of the responses:
Talking about death in the home is usually not done because, "my dad or mom do not want to do it."
A child that lost his grandfather, great-grandmother, bird and cat felt the most upset over the grandfather. He did not go to the funeral but could not remember the reason why.
One who thought death was a nightmare could not say why - in fact, did not even want to talk about it because the thought was so bad.
Another child had written that he destroyed many animals in his lifetime. He smashed frogs with rocks, suffocated a gerbil in a paper bag, etc. When asked about this he stated he still "experimented" with the killing of things.
A kid who tried to flush his cat down the toilet after his mom flushed a fish explained that the cat was dead and he thought that was the proper thing to do.
Kids that don't think a lot about death avoid it because they find it scary and a very unpleasant thought. They do not want to die.What does "Death" look like to those kids? "Shooting someone, skeleton, a nothing, get buried, heart attack, and lying motionless." To the question, "If you found out one of your friends was dying, how would you treat them?", the responses were: "Treat them nice; Be nice to them because they are not going to live very long; The same way I treat them right now; Give them what they want; and I don't know." Do they worry about the death of their parent(s)? Most say they do worry about it. Some of them are worried about their disposition if their parents died. Who would they go to if they had a personal problem? "Relatives, don't know, mother, dog, sister, cousin, friend, next door neighbor, and I would take care of it myself." "What would happen if you asked your teacher last year about death?" The answers were, "Maybe some other time, no way, give me a chocolate-chip cookie and I will talk about it, she might ignore me and go on with what we were doing, and I do not want to talk about this." When asked if it should be discussed or left out of the curriculum, most say it should be discussed. "What is the reason why death is not talked about in school?" They think the teachers believe the kids are too young, the teachers can't cope with it and might even faint, the teachers are so old they are close to death which makes them nervous, and there is so much other stuff to be taught it the teachers cannot fit it in. Incidentally, none of the fourth graders were afraid to come to the High School to participate in the class. But a few students could not come because their parents refused to sign the permission slip!
Most of us are living with a huge burden. Assuming the major underlying cause is how parents treat the subject of death with their kids, what happens to a person in a society full of ignoring and avoiding death? One manner of handling it is repression. To put it "out of mind" will allow us to live superficial lives pretending death is on another level from ours. Of course, when it hits close to home it can be devastating - mourning can become pathological and difficult to overcome. Another technique is to transcend death. The idea would be to set up a huge immortality defense in order to prove death is inferior. Live today for tomorrow for it will always come! The constant challenge to death in order to build self-power and longevity becomes paramount. There is so much euphoria when seeming success takes place that it is a major driving force among us!
When asked why go rock climbing to the top of a mountain, the answer from those that do it oftentimes is, "...because it makes me feel good and is an accomplishment." A major reason is because they successfully cheated death. The more dangerous the task, the more euphoria found at the successful completion. I have gone scuba diving under frozen lakes in the winter. A hole about the perimeter of a bed is sawed through the ice and then 2 divers, who are tethered to the surface and to each other, enter the hole. The line offers the only means of escape. Chopping through 7 or more inches of ice from underneath is an almost impossible task on 1 tank of air. Prior to the dive the conversations are usually bland and matter-of-fact. After the divers exit the water they are usually euphoric and joke around. The difference is quite obvious!
Cheating death may be done in subtle ways as well. Taking vitamins, addictive exercising, and getting involved in gin-mill brawls are examples. The amount of euphoria is not as great. Cheating death in a death-defying act is much more pleasurable. Plunging toward the Earth on the end of an elastic bungee line produces the thrill of a lifetime! Just missing death by an inch or so makes your day.
Being involved in this transcendence does present a major problem. As one continually reinforces their immortality by defying death it makes relationships superficial. In every class, and almost every day, some of the students left their house in the morning on very bad terms with one or both parents. They might have even told them they were worthless using many choice words. If they knew their mother or father was to die that day, which is hard to believe but entirely possible, they never would have let their last living moment turn out the way it did. Because of the immortality kick they believe they will always see their parents again. If a death really did occur it might be devastating for a lifetime!
There seems to a paradox here: On the one hand we seem to be avoiding death at all costs and we have an intense fascination over the death of others as long as they are not close to us. "Although we avoid death and the dying, we are fascinated by seeing 'distant others' die. That reinforces our mortality. But we must avoid the dead, the dying, and any talk of death because it is a reminder of our own mortality." - George Campbell (Circa 1980).
One place that is obvious is in the pornoviolence found in major publications. Newspapers are loaded with death-related information. Grizzly pictures sell magazines! One cover of Time Magazine portrayed the Jonestown massacre. The picture showed the bucket containing the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the foreground. On the side of the walkway and in the background were the bodies of those involved in this mass suicide. The pictures in the article were no less explicit. There were shots of bloated bodies, some with urine-soaked clothes, sprawled in one of the compounds.
The bodies after mass suicide in Jonestown
Another picture appearing after the Lockerbie, Scotland Pam Am plane crash showed a man still strapped to his seat and hanging from a house roof. One can read into the picture what it must have been like to be blown out of a plane some 30,000 feet up while still strapped to your seat. This type of "distant death" sells magazines. Of course, if the man hanging in his seat was my father than it would represent a "close death," and I would not have wanted to see it, much less buy the magazine.
Films can be engineered to play on this theme as well. It's important, however, to keep the pornoviolence distant from the spectator. In episodes of television's "Gunsmoke" the camera angle is best if it allows one to see the death of another as long as it does not remind us of our own death. When Wyatt Earp is having a showdown in the town square with the bandit, the camera must be to the rear of him and the bullets creating death must go away from the camera. It is rare, indeed, to have the camera placed at the receiving end of the bullet because that puts the viewer in the unpleasant position of confronting their own death.
Kill films, which were introduced to the United States several years ago, became sought after and were soon outlawed. In these films there would be hard-core pornographic activity between a man and woman. Following the sexual exploits the woman was actually killed in the film. She had no idea that was to happen. After all, it is supposed to be very exciting to actually kill another human being as long as it continues to remain a "distant" death. Arcade games allow one to fantasize about killing. There are weekend warriors that engage in combat by firing laser beams or paint pellets at each other. They travel great distances to become part of an army that moves through the hall or field in order to simulate killing another human being. There is a lot of enjoyment at shooting their friends! Soon computers in life-size arcade machines will allow a person to kill another with so much realism millions of dollars will be made.
Other films have a great technique to get into the heads of teenagers. This is done through the fascination with death. If I wanted teenagers to stop having sex before marriage, how ineffective would it be if I walked into class and said, "All of the students in this class should stop having sex until they get married!" The chance of success would be slim indeed. The chance of hearing laughter would be great. However, if I wanted to preach morals using the theme of death found in film media would work. Movies such as Friday, The 13th are a perfect example of that.You can be sure if someone in any of those films engaged in immoral behavior their life-span would be short. Within a minutes after the sexual transgression they would be killed by Jason. They would be killed in a way connected with their evil behavior. In one film there was a couple watching television. The boy was putting the make on the girl. He wanted to have sex with her but she wanted nothing to do with him. Shortly thereafter he was struck in the head with a machete. That corrected the evil thoughts coming from his head. In another episode, a couple was having sex in a hammock. The killer sword was thrust up from the bottom of the hammock through both of them. They were made permanently inseparable. Another involved a guy driving up to his girlfriend's workplace to take her out for a good time. After several suggestive comments about her sexual plans, she went to get ready while he sat in the car snorting cocaine. Before she came out he was struck on the head with an axe (drugs mess up the head). She came out and sat in the car waiting for her date not knowing he was dead on the other side of teh car. She wants sex so bad she starts yelling for him to return, and then has a snort of cocaine as well. She then spots her dead boyfriend lying on the ground, jumps out of the car, and gets slammed with the axe. Guess where? In the lower torso outside the uterus, the center for sexual activity. The film goodie-goodies escape all this terror and are even able to fight Jason in order to save the day.
Kids love to hate Freddie Kruger in A Nightmare on Elm Street movies. There are many sequels to this film. To these kids, Freddie Kruger represents the adult part of our society. Adults are passing a planet to their kids that has been royally screwed up due to pollution, debt, weapons-threat, dangerous sexual threats, etc. But, as evil as Freddie is, they don't want him killed and are quite happy when he keeps appearing in the next episode. To kill him and end the sequence would rob the youth the opportunity of punishing the adults of society for their lousy legacy.
Kids like to "play" with death. They wear Greatful Dead emblems on their shirts. Some claim to enjoy music portraying death such as the Heavy Metal recording, Metallica's Blackened. Some draw death symbols on school scrap paper - words like "Lucifer triumphs," "666," "foul feces," "The swamp creature slithered into the car to eat the occupants," and "children of the beast" are some that I have recovered and recorded. In playing with death there is some feeling of overcoming its power through the union with the Devil. God is good but still allows me to die so I will join the only possible counter-force.
So much energy is spent in avoiding and beating death out we tend to loose sight of what is really important and what is not. A former student, Marc Wildy, wrote the following composition in college. I am reproducing it with the college professor's minor corrections included. It shows how, after all the tears since the death of his friend, he is still plagued by the way he behaved:
"The thing that I most regret not doing was writing a certain letter. In the third grade my best friend developed a brain tumor. His treatments were extensive and he often missed a lot of school. However, this never stopped us from seeing each other. We were always at each other's houses playing and laughing. We were inseparable and wouldn't let anything get in the way of our friendship. After a while, Scott, my friend, was hospitalized for further treatments. We still saw each other as much as we could, usually once a week.
"After about six months Scott lost most of his hair, underwent brain surgery, and gained a lot of weight. This didn't matter. We still managed to see each other, and when we did we always had fun. We didn't let his disease get in the way of our friendship. A few weeks later Scott had to be permanently hospitalized. Since I was too young to visit patients, we couldn't see each other anymore, but we often talked, or cried, on the phone to each other. We both began to realize his treatments were failing.
"Scott's condition grew worse and worse. The cancer spread and starting affecting his senses, including his sight. He could no longer talk on the phone any more, for he was much too sick for that. In school our teacher said that we should all send him letters, and we all did. They were mostly posters and get-well-soon cards. I sent him a card with many pictures of animals on which, by flipping the separate parts, you could make the head of one animal appear on the body of another. It was a charming card but was of little use to him without sight.
"Scott died a few weeks after I started fourth grade. I wasn't surprised. I had known his disease was terminal but, nevertheless, I was heartbroken. I wanted to tell him how much he meant to me, how much I loved him, but I couldn't. It was too late. I began to regret all the times I had decided to do something else instead of writing to him. The bitter truth was that I had only sent him that one animal card. I never told him how I felt. I never wrote him a letter that, at least, could have been read to him, even if he couldn't read it himself. In truth I had abandoned him. How I wish I had told him how I felt, had told him how sad I was, and told how much I loved him. It's too late now and the guilt I feel is enormous. I can never think about Scott without thinking about the letter I never sent."
When asked if they would be able to tell people that they loved them, several students pointed out problems with that. Feeling that people will be around forever makes saying, "I love you" not that important. And, because it is phrased so infrequently reactions to the words might be misinterpreted. One girl said the words might make her male friend think she wanted to have sex with him. Another said his father would think he was in trouble, contemplating suicide, or seriously sick if he said, "I love you" to him. The element of embarrassment was mentioned. Lastly, one said if it was left unsaid you might live longer knowing you might say it later in life.
Someone once said, "Death is becoming more of a door and less of a window." The class interpreted that to mean a variety of things. Death is now being looked at as an end rather than going on to a better place. Things behind doors are vague and things behind windows are not. People are now relying less upon religion and must now rely upon themselves for death explanations. If one takes the Heaven and Hell concept away people will concentrate on this life rather than the afterlife. The focus will become the avoidance of death which leads to the problem Americans have with it.
Historically not all cultures are, or were, preoccupied with avoiding death and/or the fear of it. The ancient Egyptians both loved life and welcomed death. The pharaohs were in a position to observe their mausoleum being constructed. (How would it fare if your friends began erecting a crypt next to your home to place you in after death?) The afterlife was looked forward to. The three states of existence: the living, the dead, and the gods were all equal and life-like. To pass into death was similar to changing a costume in the theater, and each of these states had the same needs such as food, sex, etc. In fact, the afterlife was considered so good some of the mummies, such as Pum II, had their penises held in the erect position with a stick. After the pharaoh died and was embalmed over a period of months, he was eventually entombed with the people that loved him. They were entombed alive and did not seem to mind! And, when one studies how the Egyptians fared in life they did much better psychologically than we do.
I was talking to a friend and he related a sad story supporting our obsession with immortality. The father wanted his daughter to go to the store and buy cherry-vanilla ice cream. She returned with vanilla instead because she was unable to find the cherry-vanilla. The father started an argument that led to him smacking the daughter. The daughter walked out. The wife, being upset over what happened, got into a fight with the father. The end result was the father and mother not speaking to each other for several days! If any of those people knew the other was about to die they would have never let it end that way. Can you imagine going to that extreme over an ice cream mix-up? The belief in immortality is a strong force!
Much of what we do is related to the quest for immortality. It's not always adverse. Some people reproduce in order to achieve immortality. Cryogenic suspension (freezing one's body after death in the hope of future reanimation - discussed in detail later in this book) is an obvious example. Much of our creativity, the monuments over graves, organ donations, and even psychic states, such as meditation, are vain attempts to achieve immortality. Sigmund Freud even stated that we are convinced of our immortality and that it is impossible for a person to imagine their own death. When one tries to imagine their own death they will always see themselves as a spectator.
So, the big question is how can we get over this immortality, fear-of-death kick. It's not easy! It might take a great deal of time. There are 3 ways it can be done:
The first way is to have someone in authority convince you that you are about to die. That would put a whole new outlook on what life is all about. I met a girl at a summer camp in Maine many years ago. She was very pretty and always had a smile on her face. She was the type of person you wanted to be with because she made you feel good. After talking with her one day I discovered she had been told she had a blood disease, such as leukemia, that would cause her death in less than a year. A second opinion confirmed the diagnosis. She made some abrupt behavioral changes based on her shattered immortality beliefs. After living with this knowledge for 6 or 7 months, she found out the problem had been wrongly diagnosed. The blood disease was completely curable. I met her about 3 or 4 years after this experience. I was appalled. How terrible to have to go through such a trauma. On the contrary, according to her, it was the best thing that ever happened. By suddenly facing the fact she was mortal, her life turned dramatically around and she appreciated every second of it more than ever!
The second way is that you must conceive of your death everyday. You must solve problems after considering what would happen to the solution if you were to die. For example, if you think your presence on the job is so critical the company would flounder without you, conceive of what really would happen if you died. If you find the company would really flounder (and that is hard to believe) it is quite unfair for you to put the business and its employees in such a tenuous position. On the other hand, if you come to realize the company would get along without you, it would make you a better leader. Solve problems as if you will die tomorrow. Make today important. Stop living for the future. Treat others as if you will be seeing them for the last time.
The third way is to have someone you really love die. But remember, as Eric Fromm so aptly concluded, you cannot love someone else unless you love yourself!
No one is suggesting all of us should have a blinding awareness of our mortality. But an awareness of our death anxiety, and the real reasons why people do what they do because of the fear of death is important. One other thing: Rev. Craig Haight, one of the speakers in the class, once said, "You cannot understand dying in other people unless you deal with dying in yourself."
For 5 years I conducted a survey to determine what had most influenced the students' attitude toward dying. The results:
Death of someone close - 34%
Internal feelings and analysis - 22%
Religion - 19%
The media - 6%
Family life span - 4%
Specific reading - 3%
Rituals, such as funerals - 3%
Personal health - 3%
Educational institutions - 2%
What are the reasons we fear death? Over the years it was determined there were at least 10 reasons:
1. Death is an unknown. That is frightening!
2. Loneliness - You may have to withdraw from work, others may ignore you, you may be isolated in a hospital, hospice, nursing home, etc. Also, you may be forgotten after death.
3. There may be great sorrow and you may not be able to tolerate the death experience.
4. You will suffer great losses such as your family and friends.
5. You may suffer great body loss.
6. You may loose self-control of bodily functions.
7. There may be great suffering and pain.
8. Grief may be unbearable. The living are going to grieve for 1, and you are going to grieve for all.
9. There may be a non-existent or a terrible afterlife.
10. You will not be able to accomplish the tasks or meet your goals in life.
Of the two groups, who feared death more: Those that have a firm religion they believe in or those that are considered non-religious? It has been found the religious fear death more because they are afraid of the afterlife and the judgments that will be made about the way they lived their life. Religion uses the threat or fear of death to get their followers adhere to the doctrine.
Return to Main Page