Death’s Moment

Is death having a moment? According to this Atlantic story, the answer for those involved in the “death movement” is yes:

Forty years ago, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker claimed that fear of our own mortality was the fundamental motivator behind all human behavior. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker said awareness of our own death made each of us want to engage in activities that rendered us unique, reaching a level of “immortality” by leaving our mark on the world, and impelling us to look for permanence in our kids and careers, art and architecture, religions and cultures. This desire, he said, steers our decisions, including ideologies, fellowships, and fashion choices.

Like Becker, psychologists who work in Terror Management Theory (TMT), believe that each human’s constructed identity is a shield, an “elaborate drapery that provides us with the fortitude to carry on despite the uniquely human awareness of our mortal fate.”

“What is the fundamental root of human behavior?” Caitlin Doughty said. “I think it’s death. I agree with Becker.”

Doughty is a mortician, so her assertion makes vocational sense. But as I explained in this meditation on mortality, people tend to obsess over death only in certain kinds of societies. Death anxiety is not, in other words, a human universal. Such obsessions are generated by specific kinds of sociocultural conditions. As is so often the case, we don’t find these kinds of anxieties or obsessions among hunter-gatherers.


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5 thoughts on “Death’s Moment

  1. franscouwenbergh

    I fully agree with your statement >>Death anxiety is not, in other words, a human universal. Such obsessions are generated by specific kinds of sociocultural conditions. As is so often the case, we don’t find these kinds of anxieties or obsessions among hunter-gatherers.<<<

    It is so conceivably explained by Colin Turnbull in his 1961 book "The Forest People", wherein he describes the way the Pygmies (hunter-gatherers) deal with death and the way the Bantus (farmers) do this.
    The Pygmies wail and cry and mourn abundantly is somebody is 'dead for ever', but after the funeral of the body, their joyful way of life goes further and they never talk again about the deceased.
    The Bantus see every death as a revenge of evil spirits and blame someone from the area of ​​the deceased.

    What is the cause of the different way of thinking between the hunting/gathering lifestyle (99% ot the time that our ancestors were humans) and the farming lifestyle (since 10.000 years ago)?
    Hunter-gatherers have an accepting and playful way of dealing with life and death because they scare up their food from where they can find it.
    Farmers, however, control their food sources: have no longer an accepting attitude towards nature but a controlling attitude. The plants and domesticates have to flourish like the farmer wants. And if they don't, it must have a cause and it is the fault of someone. And they take their measures, in the form of revenge or incantations, or sorceries of their shamans.

  2. Gyrus

    “Anxiety about death does not have ontological status, as existentialist theologians claim. It has historical status only, and is relative to the repression of the human body; the horror of death is the horror of dying with what Rilke called unlived lines in our bodies.” (Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death) I imagine these “unlived lines” have a very close relationship to the dynamics of “delayed return” economies.

  3. Larry Stout

    That mortification of the body is unavoidable becomes apparent to everyone at an early age, regardless of culture. Coming to grips with it philosophically, always in a cultural context, is a long-lived, and evolutionary, personal process. As a teenager, I was absolutely horrified by the prospect of ultimate oblivion, despite common postulates about some purportedly immortal soul. But our psychological state changes with age. I’ve long since stopped being terrified by death (what’s good enough for almost everyone else in my family, all dead, is surely good enough for me), though I do dread the prospect of suffering (or, equally, vegetating). Every day of a human life is a pretense of immortality, and I’m damned well having a good time in my daily unabashed pretense. We didn’t suffer during the eternity before awareness hit us, and I don’t imagine we’ll suffer during the eternity following (if you’ll pardon my arrow-of-time thinking). Meanwhile, our brief lives involve the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but at least we lucky ones manage to get our kicks along the way. :>)

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