Thinking about death in a death-denying, death-defying society

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“Time is a great teacher,” said the composer Hector Berlioz, “but unfortunately it kills all its pupils.” That every one of us will one day die is the most inevitable fact of existence, but in the modern world, discussions of dying still have a degree of taboo.

Our perceptions of death have changed drastically in the past 100 years. Death used to be swift, brutal, and present in the home, so it was present in our minds and understood as inevitable. But today, nursing homes, hospice care, and hospitals separate the young and healthy from the aging and dying. Medical technology is so effective at extending life that it distracts us from death’s inevitability, creating a culture of death-denying and death-defying.

Our modern health care system emphasizes an ideology of “heroism and rescue” that states that we must do everything medically possible to delay death, promoting the myth that hospitals can rescue us from dying. Some scholars have argued that we should instead encourage people to seek “a good death,” eschewing painful measures that prolong life only marginally, and facing death with a sense of acceptance and serenity[1].

Though most of us avoid thinking about death as much as we can, some studies show that thinking about it can be helpful, increasing prosocial behavior and inspiring healthy choices. In one study, participants overheard a conversation about helping others just before they walked past a cemetery. Next, an actor who was part of the experiment dropped her notebook in front of them. Participants who’d walked past the cemetery were 40 percent more likely to help than those who’d overheard the same conversation in a non death-related location[2].

Another study found that reminders of death caused American and Iranian religious fundamentalists to become more compassionate toward members of other groups—but only if they’d just read a passage about the importance of compassion[3].

Research has also shown that being reminded of death can inspire people to make healthier choices, including using sunscreen, smoking less, and exercising more[4]. In one study, death reminders made women more willing to perform a breast self-examination after reading information framing it as a tool of self-empowerment[5].

Finally, reminders of death can serve to make life more meaningful. We’ve all heard stories of people who had brushes with death and came out the other side with a new appreciation of the value of life. As the authors of a study put it, “Life itself emerges with enhanced value after people confront its fragile and finite nature”[6].

To test this notion empirically, researchers exposed participants to death-related words such as “dead” and “tombstone.” Compared with a control group, participants who’d been reminded of death in this way placed greater value on life and felt a greater sense of meaning, becoming more likely to agree with prompts like “My life has a clear sense of purpose” and “If I should die today, I’d feel that my life has been very worthwhile,” and more likely to disagree with statements like “My life is empty, filled only with despair,” and “If I could choose, I would prefer never to have been born.”

Leo Tolstoy famously asked, “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” Not only is the answer an emphatic yes, but in fact the inevitability of death itself serves to make life more meaningful.

?References?

1. Chapple, H.S. (2010). No place for dying: Hospitals and the ideology of rescue. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
2. Gailliot, M.T., Stillman, T., Schmeichel, B.J., Plant, E.A., & Maner, J.K. (2008). Mortality salience increases adherence to cultural norms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 993-1003.
3. Rothschild, Z.K., Abdollahi, A., & Pyszczynski, T. (2009). Does peace have a prayer? The effect of mortality salience, compassionate values, and religious fundamentalism on hostility toward out-groups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 816-827.
4. Vail, K.E., Juhl, J., Arndt, J., Vess, M., Routledge, C., & Rutjens, B.T. (2012). When death is good for life: Considering the positive trajectories of terror management. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16, 303–329.
5. Cooper, D.P., Goldenberg, J.L., & Arndt, J. (2011). Empowering the self: Using the terror management health model to promote breast self-examination. Self and Identity, 10, 315–325.
6. King, L.A., Hicks, J.A., & Abdelkhalik, J. (2009). Death, life, scarcity, and value: An alternative perspective on the meaning of death. Psychological Science, 20, 1459–1462.