It’s Ash Wednesday, and I’m setting the ashes from last year’s palm crosses on the communion table, preparing to smudge them in a cross shape on my congregants’ foreheads while reciting the words from Genesis: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I count 14 people in the circle, a small sampling of the Sunday morning crowd. I don’t blame congregants for not showing up. Who wants to go to church to be confronted with your mortality, reminded that your body will one day be reduced to ashes in an urn or worm food? It’s a hard service to market: “Come to church and be reassured that you could get hit by a bus tomorrow!” No wonder Ash Wednesday is never the greatest draw on the liturgical calendar. Every year, I wonder if the death ritual is worth my time. Then again, when else can we talk in such a no-nonsense way about our own mortality?
We might joke that the two sure things in life are death and taxes, but all that certainty doesn’t make us more inclined to face dying. In fact, our world is so saturated with death denial that we spend billions on products that will keep us looking and feeling young. But some theorists say much more than expensive Botox treatments are at stake if we don’t face our fear of mortality. Death anxiety, they argue, leads to prejudice and even violence. Could getting a handle on our fear of death help bring about a more peaceful world? For the last 40 years, researchers have been trying to figure out how our degree of death awareness — or “mortality salience” — pushes our collective buttons, how religion factors in and what we can do to feel more at peace about our impending demise.
From the beginning, death has mystified and horrified us. Long before the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote that “death is the most terrible of things,” several groups of preliterate peoples in Malaysia and North India packed up and fled whenever a death occurred in their community, never returning to the place where the individual died. Today, we don’t pack up and run but instead send death packing: we institutionalize the dying, hold wakes in funeral homes rather than in our own houses, and invest in medicine that halts the body’s natural decline.
We deny death on one hand and court it on another, creatively working out our angst through music, art and storytelling. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem and one of the oldest surviving works of literature, Gilgamesh embarks on a terrifying quest for immortality only to discover the sorry news: “The life that you are seeking you will never find. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.” Death is still a constant muse in the present age. The creators of Funeralwise.com tallied the number of deaths in 40 television shows on air in 2012: five dead bodies per episode, a 12 percent increase over the 2011 body count.
“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,” wrote cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, the 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book that catapulted fear of death into the public consciousness.
Becker doesn’t need to convince me that in day-to-day life we are death avoiders; death denial is a mainstay of my work as a United Church minister. I can’t count the number of adults I’ve met whose parent’s funeral was the first they’d ever attended, their grief compounded by not knowing what to do or how to act. Or how many times parents have inquired whether or not they should bring their young children to the funeral home for fear it might be too upsetting. Or how often middle-aged children have called me distressed that their 98-year-old parent, who feels trapped in a worn-out body and confined to a windowless room, has said a perfectly reasonable thing: “I want to die.” Or how many times a doctor has failed to offer the dignity of the truth — “You are dying” — leaving my parishioner unprepared and the family in shock because they didn’t hear death knocking.
According to Becker’s theory, death anxiety doesn’t stop at the level of the individual; it has seeped into the fabric of society. Humans have a unique ability to conceive of their own mortality, he argued, and the realization that we will one day be maggot fodder causes such existential angst that we create world views and cultures to stave it off. At first, Becker’s ideas were ridiculed. But over the last four decades, our anxiety about death has been put under the microscope. More than 500 studies have been conducted to test our response to mortality salience.
The first such study involved a group of municipal court judges in Tucson, Ariz., in 1989. The judges were divided into two groups: half were reminded of their mortality and asked to describe the emotions that the thought of dying evoked. Both groups were presented with a hypothetical legal case involving a prostitution charge. The judges who were prompted with reminders of their death imposed an average bond of $450 compared to the average bond of $50 in the control group. Thinking about mortality had apparently heightened their belief that bad behaviour should be punished.
Jeff Greenberg, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona, was on the team that conducted the study. Based on this experiment and subsequent ones, Greenberg and colleagues Sheldon Solomon and Tom Pyszczynski developed a theory of death anxiety they call “terror management.” From his office at the university, Greenberg tells me that when the desire for life and the inevitability of death butt heads, we are deeply, existentially terrified. To defend and protect ourselves against this fear, we create and cling to world views that provide the universe with order, meaning and value — and that promise eternal life, literally or symbolically.
“Belief in the afterlife is an example of literal immortality. Writing the great novel or contributing to science — giving something to society that will outlast us — are examples of symbolic immortality. We mitigate our anxiety about death by striving for literal or symbolic immortality,” he explains.
Greenberg says that some of our anxiety about dying can lead to prejudice and violence. “It can help explain inter-group conflict. If the psychological security you are getting from your belief system or world view allows you to cope with death, then anyone who calls into question that world view needs to be defeated.”
In Greenberg’s well-known “hot sauce study,” participants who were reminded of their mortality dispensed an extra-large helping of hot sauce to those whose world views disagreed with theirs. The results have potentially serious implications for what we might do to one another when we feel our lives are threatened. Indeed, death awareness studies performed by Greenberg and others have reached a striking variety of conclusions: when reminded of our mortality, we are more nationalistic, more inclined to perceive members of our own culture more favourably than members of other cultures, more drawn to charismatic leaders over compassionate and pragmatic ones, and more apt to follow male leaders over female ones.
But death doesn’t always make us close ranks. Fear of dying can lead us to make a positive mark on the world, too. One month after Sept. 11, 2001, while the Valley Forge Flag Company in Pennsylvania reported that 25 million people ordered American flags (in an average year, they sold two million), applications to helping professions soared.
What we do in the face of dying depends on which of our values are ignited when the mortality switch gets flipped. If we value materialism, then being reminded of our death can lead us to purchase more. Conversely, if we value generosity, then mortality reminders can lead us to will our money to charity.
Theorists debate the effect that death awareness has on us, the extent to which our lives are constructed around it and the extreme behaviours that studies suggest it elicits. But no one disagrees that death scares us, well, to death.
It’s natural to be afraid of dying, I think. Even Jesus, realizing his life was about to be cut short, sweat buckets in the garden of Gethsemane. But what about death do we actually fear? We aren’t likely to die with nails driven through our wrists, but we might get a fatal disease and waste away, or worse. The television show 1000 Ways to Die makes getting hit by a bus sound appealing; it sure beats dying on the loo, at least in my book. As Woody Allen put it, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Paul Wong, a retired clinical psychologist, professor and the founding pastor of the Chinese Gospel Church in Toronto, boils death anxiety down to 10 root fears: the finality of death; the uncertainty of what follows; non-existence; ultimate loss; disruption of the flow of life; leaving loved ones behind; pain and loneliness; untimely and violent death; failing to complete life work; and judgment or retribution. “It’s important to try to understand what about death we fear,” he says. “Once we understand what the root of our fear is, the less anxious we are about it.”
We learn to fear death, or at least contemplate it, from the time we’re old enough to listen to stories like Peter Pan and Hansel and Gretel. Mortality salience studies show that we become conscious of death when we are as young as five. From then on, death anxiety revs up, plateauing at mid-life when people are most awake to the fact that their life is half over and they better get cracking before the clock winds down.
“You’d think that as you age and death draws near, there would be an increase in death anxiety. Actually, data suggests that the older we are, the less fearful we are,” says Adrian Tomer, a psychologist who teaches at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. “One type of explanation centres around the concept of regret. We theorize that there are two categories of regret: past-related regret, like, ‘I should have done this or that and now it’s too late’; and future-oriented regret, like, ‘I had plans or projects that now I won’t be able to follow through with.’ If I’m 40 and I have past regrets and still have many future goals, death would be particularly scary. That may be one reason why death anxiety peaks in mid-life.”
It’s hard to say if our fear of death decreases in old age because we have less future-oriented regret or because we’ve dealt with our angst and can put it behind us. There’s also speculation that seniors think less about death because they are more apt to be religious.
Exactly how religion affects our response to mortality is complicated. Some speculate that religious belief emerged to cushion us from our existential terrors or to let us thumb our noses at death’s finality. For others, religion is the result of Divine design.
Without a doubt, though, death is so central to human consciousness that every religion has a death theory woven into its belief system. In western faith traditions, the deceased’s spirit is released from the body to inhabit an eternal realm. Eastern religious traditions believe in continual rebirth, with freedom from the cycle of rebirth achieved through enlightenment or nirvana.
Not all of our religious ideas about death are comforting. Who wants to confront St. Peter at the Pearly Gates with his naughty-or-nice checklist, much less spend eternity languishing in the burning fires of hell? The idea that harp-bearing angels emanating eternal happiness occupy every puff of cloud mitigates death anxiety only for those Christians who believe not only that such a realm exists but that they’re going to make it there.
Religiosity isn’t one-size-fits-all. In 2005, 141 members of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in New York City were surveyed to determine their levels of acceptance and anxiety about death. The survey showed it didn’t matter how often people prayed or went to church or how much religion influenced their daily decisions — only belief in God and the afterlife made them less anxious and more accepting of dying.
Dmitrij Agroskin, a PhD student at the University of Salzburg, studies death awareness and religion. In an e-mail, he distinguishes between people who attend church mainly to meet friends or so their neighbours won’t think badly of them, and those whose religious beliefs provide them “with guidance and substantial answers to existential questions (like, ‘What is the meaning of life?’)” Only in the latter case, he argues, does religion “function as a buffer from existential anxiety.”
In other words, just going through the ritual of attending church doesn’t make us less fearful of dying. It doesn’t make us less prone to violence either. Three groundbreaking studies published in the European Journal of Social Psychology last year examined death awareness across three religions and cultures: American Christians and Jews, Muslims in Iran and Polish Christians. In every religion studied, those who adopted spiritual practices like prayer and meditation were less likely to become biased and violent when reminded of their death than those who were more focused on the ritualistic aspects of religiosity.
Altogether, mortality salience studies prove that death makes us anxious and that death anxiety may make us prone to violence. So the less anxious we are about dying, the better. And that’s easier said than done.
Ruth Richardson, a member of Stittsville (Ont.) United and a palliative care nursing professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa, thinks that death needs to be delivered from its grim reaper guise. “I often tell my students, ‘We are carbon-based. We are meant to decay and die. We are meant to physically fail.’ I joke that we are meant to compost. That might seem obvious, but the medical model is so focused on living and prolonging life that it comes as a shock when I teach that we are meant to die,” she says. Richardson thinks that if we changed our perspective on death, considered it a natural part of life, we’d be less anxious about it. “Life and death are not opposite. We are constantly living and dying. At the molecular level, we are living and dying all the time,” she says. “If we see death as something that can be beat, then when we can’t cure, save or fix ourselves, we’re in for huge disappointment with the doctor, the clinic, the medicine, with ourselves. . . . We need to normalize death and reclaim dying as a special, sacred, wonderful time.”
Maybe we can become less anxious about dying if we are confident we can do it well. Cultural values teach that we should grasp firmly to what we care about, hanging on “for dear life.” Death requires learning to do the opposite. The work of grief is relinquishing what and whom we love. Jesus exemplified a good letting go. He wept in the garden. He repeatedly told his companions what was going to happen to him, cutting through their deep denial. He ate a final meal, a last supper, with his friends. He gave them some structure for their grief, empowering them through a family ritual: “Do this in remembrance of me.” At the bitter end (maybe because it took that long), he forgave those who wronged him. “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Paul Wong thinks that the scientific community needs to look at death like Jesus did. He says that for 40 years, scientific efforts have measured death anxiety, but the focus needs to shift to measuring death acceptance. “By accepting our mortality, we declare our intention to invest our energy and time in living the good life rather than defending ourselves against the inevitable death,” Wong writes in the 2007 essay collection Existential and Spiritual Issues in Death Attitudes. “Ideally, death acceptance should set us free from anxiety and energize us to live with vitality and purpose. By the same token, when we have lived a wonderful life and completed our life’s mission, we would be prepared to face death. . . . We should view death as our master teacher rather than monster terror.”
Maybe Wong is right and the best defence is a good offence: the universal buffer against death anxiety is figuring out how to live a meaningful life. This doesn’t mean checking things off the bucket list, but being thoughtful about what goes on it in the first place. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro might be easier and less meaningful than having heartfelt conversations with people you love or forgiving those you don’t. Close friendships and romantic relationships have been shown to help us cope with the intimations of mortality. Another study says that waxing nostalgic and taking a trip down memory lane assuages anxiety, provided the memories are positive ones.
Adopting an “attitude of gratitude” can help us face death. An experiment conducted last year at the Hong Kong Institute of Education found that subjects who thought about events in life for which they are grateful were significantly less anxious when reminded about death. The study’s authors speculated that gratitude curbs our fear of death because thankfulness puts past- and future-related regrets into perspective. However it works, “count your blessings” sounds like sage advice.
Greenberg reflects from a larger perspective. “The world is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock world view makes clear distinctions between good and bad. It tells us what we need to do to get to heaven or avoid hell. It can be very comforting, but it’s unmoving,” he says. “The hard place is not so sure about right and wrong and good and evil. It’s less quick to judge. It’s more complex. It makes you less certain. It’s a harder place to live.” One way to avoid some of the pitfalls of death anxiety is to move to the hard place, “to make our world views as broad and as flexible as possible,” says Greenberg.
Getting a handle on our mortality can make our lives richer. If religion doesn’t have us joining St. Paul’s bold chorus — “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?” — perhaps we can at least follow it to a place of hardy Old Testament, Ash Wednesday pragmatism: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” So make it meaningful.