The Irrational Fear of Death

grave stoneI was in a discussion recently where someone suggested that we, as a species, might want to rethink the practice of burying our dead because it wastes valuable space that could be used for something better.  It’s not a bad question to be sure, although I don’t think we’re out of usable land quite yet so this might be a premature consideration, but one of the people in the discussion completely freaked out and said that we should never, ever do that, that anyone who doesn’t want to be buried and have their body preserved has something wrong with them and that everyone ought to go spend tons of time hanging around with their dead relatives and friends so they can remember them.  Nobody can be cremated, nobody can donate their body to science and nobody can possibly disagree because this woman is absolutely right in her assertions.

Yeah, not so much.  I had to point out that the only reason humans do this is because they tend to have this really irrational, bizarre fear of death so they want to keep their deceased loved ones close so they don’t have to feel they’re truly gone forever.  That’s why we, at least in the United States, tend to put dead people in a box, pumped full of chemicals to retard the natural decomposition process, with stone markers so you don’t forget where they’re buried.  People go out and put flowers on graves for years or decades after their death, just to let the dead know we’re still thinking about them.

But why?  It makes no sense.  Personally, ever since my father was buried over a decade ago, I have never once gone to his graveside, not since the funeral.  Why would I?  He’s dead.  I don’t need to stand in the vicinity of his remains to remember him.  And when my mother dies and gets put into the same hole, she’s got some over/under shared grave thing set up, I’m not going to go see her either.  So far as I know, she’s never gone to the graveside either.  What’s the point?  It doesn’t really matter what your perspective is on the whole thing, if you’re religious, then the soul has left the body and it doesn’t matter.  If you’re not, whatever brain activity that made that person who they were, that stopped at death, the piece of meat in the hole really doesn’t mean anything.

Let’s be honest, it’s all about fear.  You can claim that it’s about respecting the dead and all that but that’s bullshit.  If we’re going to be rational, there’s no point in respecting a hunk of dead meat, any more than we respect a hamburger.  Personally, I couldn’t care less what happens to my body after I’m dead because I’m dead and won’t be aware of it.  Therefore, what difference does it make what’s done with the dead bodies of others?  They’re gone!  What made them who they were isn’t there anymore.  It’s just a shell.  Use it for something worthwhile.

So let’s get back to fear.  I suppose I can understand that fear, although I don’t share it at all.  That doesn’t mean I want to die right this second but when that time comes, I’m not afraid of it, any more than I was afraid of not existing before I was born.  Death is a natural part of life.  Everything that is alive will die.  Everyone you know will die.  In 1000 years, it’s likely that nobody will know you were ever alive or care.  Learning to deal with the reality that actually is, rather than the reality they wish were true, is part of the maturation process.  People who have these strange beliefs and strange fears that make no sense whatsoever really haven’t grown up and become adults.

People really need to knock this stuff off and grow up.  Death isn’t scary.  Non-existence isn’t a big deal.  As Samuel Clemens said, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”  Neither will you.

26 thoughts on “The Irrational Fear of Death

  1. "… because they tend to have this really irrational, bizarre fear of death…"

    I am not convinced that the fear of death is irrational. Being alive is generally a good and pleasurable condition. Humans have, I think, a basic desire for that which is good and pleasurable. I don't think it irrational to seek more of what is good and pleasurable. I don't think it irrational to fear that which is painful and unpleasurable so long as the fear is not at a level that is paralyzing. Few people have a paralyzing fear of death. A fear of death is not irrational simply because you think it to be. You need to provide a convincing argument that this fear is irrational in all circumstances, which appears to be the claim you are making. Even you, I suspect, harbor some fear of death. Otherwise, why do you take care and observe precautions with the objective of avoiding death?

    1. Actually, I would argue that lots of people have a paralyzing fear of death, they've felt the need to invent stories and myths about death in order to lessen the "blow". Most religions exist, at least partially, to allay the fear of death. If people have to make up a load of nonsense to get through their day, that's a paralyzing fear.

      1. You and I must be using the term paralyzing differently. I am talking about a fear that makes a person dysfunctional, unable to cope with daily life. Whatever role fear may play in the religious beliefs of most people, it is not a paralyzing fear because the overwhelming majority of religious believers function within normal behaviorial parameters in their daily lives. Making up a "load of nonsense to get through their day" as you call it does not constitute a paralyzing fear. Furthermore, you are assuming without evidence that this load of nonsense is believed solely or primarily out of fear. I think you have a very shallow understanding of religiosity, but one that fits your shallow narrative of how the world works.

        You did not engage the rest – actually bulk – of my comments. Are you conceding the point that the fear of death is not an irrational human emotion or behavior? That it is not irrational to fear that which is painful and unpleasurable; that which might lead to one's death?

  2. "Personally, ever since my father was buried over a decade ago, I have never once gone to his graveside, not since the funeral. Why would I? He’s dead."

    There you go again, holding yourself up as the paragon of rationality. Just because you have no need to do this does not mean that others who do this and/or feel a need to do so are behaving irrationally. I also don't visit the grave site of my deceased relatives, including my mother and grandmother. But I would never presume that anyone who does do this is behaving less rationally than I. If this is your presumption then you need to offer an argument as to why this behavior is less rational. In what way does the need to visit the graves of deceased loved ones violate the canons of rationality? How are the principles of rationality violated by the mere fear of death? Afterall, is it not some level of fear of death that compels most of us most of the time to take precautions to avoid death? Is it not so that relatively few people behave with little regard toward preservation of their life in their daily routine? If not motivated by some level of fear of death, then what compels most people to take care under most circumstances to prevent their own death?

  3. "If we’re going to be rational, there’s no point in respecting a hunk of dead meat, any more than we respect a hamburger."

    Some people visit graves of deceased loved ones because it gives then some emotional or psychological comfort to do so. Visiting a grave is not necessarily about the deceased person. Sometimes it is about the live person doing the visiting. I doubt that it is about respect for the remains of the person in the grave. I suspect it is more about the memories a person has of the deceased person. For some people, going to the grave may be a means of making the memories more vivid during the time the person is at the gravesite. That you don't feel a desire to visit the gravesite does not make you more or less rational than a person who does visit a gravesite. I also suspect that most people stop visiting gravesites of deceased loved ones after they have adjusted to the death of the loved one.

  4. " Personally, I couldn’t care less what happens to my body after I’m dead because I’m dead and won’t be aware of it. Therefore, what difference does it make what’s done with the dead bodies of others?"

    You are incredibly self-centered. It may not matter to you but it may matter greatly to those who loved you while you were alive. The whole process of a funeral is not about the deceased person. It is part of the grieving and letting go process for the living. Apparently you were born on the planet Vulcan. Everyone else on this planet was born here. We humans come with emotions. Humans are not Vulcans, devoid of emotions, living their lives exclusively in a rational, logical manner. Emotions are part and parcel of what makes humans. Sure, we can and should not let our emotions run wild. But to expect your fellow humans to divorce themselves from their emotions entirely, including the emotion of fear, as you seem to expect, is in fact a very irrational expectation.

  5. Clemens may not have feared death, but the remark that he was dead for billions of years before he was born is just plain absurd. And such a bright person should have known this to be absurd. Death is a state or condition that can occur only after having lived. One can not be dead before being born. Both you and Mr. Clemens have redefined the term and concept of death into complete meaninglessness.

      1. It is true that death is a state of non-existence. But it is a state of non-existence that follows the state of existence. This is significantly different from the state of non-existence that preceeded your conception and birth. Clemens was not dead before his birth, as the quote states. As I said this is stretching the meaning of death to the point of meaninglessness and irrelevancy.

        "Death is the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism." (wikipedia)

        "a : a permanent cessation of all vital functions : the end of life — compare brain death" (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/death)

        All definitions of death contain life as a condition that must preceed death. You don't get to redefine it just so you can be right.

  6. I have visited the gravesite of my grandmother.
    When I want to bring back memories, or the values she cherished it helps me to be near a sort of memorial to her life.

    Once I took a niece there, to the family plot and explained who each person was that I had met, and told her some of their life experiences. It helped her connect to the family in general and some of her issues in particular. We are a continuation of the past, to ignore that would seem unnatural to me.

    1. Whereas I really don't care about the past. I live for the future. The past is done, the future is what we build. If we can learn some useful lessons from the past, great. Otherwise, let the past rot.

      1. Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

        I don't revere the past, but it does explain so much about who we are. Why ignore that?
        Can you imagine if you went to an architect and they forgot the past and expected to start with no rules, no training to draft blueprints?

        1. Didn't I say if we can learn some useful lessons, we should? However, we shouldn't spend our time focused on the past as a lot of people do. I really don't care where I came from, I care where I'm going. I had an aunt who was obsessed with geneology and knowing everything there was to know about family history in excruciating detail. She spent so much time on it, in fact, that she ran her own life into the ground because she was so interested in the lives of people long dead.

          Me, I don't know and I don't care. The dead are dead. Leave them be.

          1. Useful lessons. I guess we define that on slightly different terms.

            But being obsessed with those who have passed, isn't that why the latin terms like 'morbid' are based on death? ('morbidity' for example)

            Life in our time must be lacking something if we look for alternatives.

          2. Fine. But why do you insist that everyone has to think about death or any other subject the same way you do? I know lots of people who engage in geneological research about their family as a hobby and out of an interest. Yet you seem to think that you are somehow more rational about how to proceed through life than these people because you think what they do is a waste of time. The world does not revolve around you, Cephus, and you are not the standard of rationality around which everyone else should gather.

          3. I have never said that, I can justify my position, I only ask others to do the same and most of the time, I find that they have no rational justification for their beliefs, just an emotional reaction.

            That's not an intellectual approach to the situation. That is a problem.

          4. I know you won't, but you should go back through and read a large sample of your posts. It is there to be seen. When you reach for an example of rationality to make a point, that example is always you. Your posts as a collection convey the message that you represent the standard of rationality to which others should aspire. Personally, I am not impressed by your use of rationality. I don't think you as skilled at rational thought as you think yourself to be.

            Furthermore, just because your position may be rational does not make it correct. We do not live on the planet Vulcan, and humans do not live by reason alone. Sometimes our emotions are an important element in our reasoning about an issue. But you dismiss all emotions. My view after having read more than a hundred of your posts is that you are skilled at rationalization. Others justify their positions and yet you still accuse them of being emotional rather than rational. You do this with every argument advanced by a liberal or a libertarian. You have concluded that your conservative principles are the only rational principles on the planet and that any person who does not accept them is de facto operating from a position of emotionalism rather than reason. I say this while feeling certain that you will not do any introspection here. A person unwilling to engage in self-reflection, to examine their own beliefs and views, is engaging in dogmatism. The case of the suicide of Matthew is one such example. You appear to think that anyone who disagrees with you on the principle of personal responsibility can't possibly be acting rationally. You appear to think that all liberals and libertarians completely reject personal responsibility as a value. You are wrong on both counts.

          5. That's okay, I'm not remotely impressed by yours, which is why honestly, I rarely even read your obnoxiously long and overblown comments. Most people don't. But hey, if you want to waste your time writing drivel people don't read, knock yourself out.

          6. It is the hallmark of an intellectual lightweight to dismiss as drivel the arguments of others rather than actually engage those arguments. It is this very tactic so often used by you that makes so much of your own writing the very drivel you so dismissively characterize in the writing of others.

          7. You know, I never made the connection before, but there was some crazy guy who thought that typing in all caps made it illegal for the government to collect taxes from him. Kinda has me wondering…

  7. I agree with you on the fear of death, however I still am all for memorial places such as graveyards etc. For me its a place to be able to go speak, and/or ask for advice which will never come. If you are thinking of some randomly bad movie scene then yes thats me. Basically, its an expensive self reflection more than connecting with the dead. I could do it at home (speak to myself) but its a change in scenery.
    My recent post Idiot of the week – Ken Langone

  8. There's so much more to a rich life than cold rationality. Even absent religious perspectives, a trip to a loved one's gravesite is an opportunity to reflect, remember and project how to carry forward the best aspects of that individual in one's own life. My wife and I periodically use such opportunities to teach our children about the grandfather they never met – in many ways he was a man worth emulating. Since he is not around to show our kids himself, this is one way we try to demonstrate his better traits.

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