Opinion, World, Editor's Choice

Introducing Death – A History of Anxiety and Denial

This is the signature piece of our August 2017 Issue: Death

Life is full of uncertainties, and yet we usually don’t worry too much about them, we just pretend our life on this planet is certain. It’s a lie we tell ourselves to avoid thinking about the one thing that unites us all, the only event that is indeed certain: Death.

There may be people here claiming that they don’t fear death or claiming to live day by day, embracing the ever existent Guillotine over their necks, possibly just moments away from being set in motion by the Grim Reaper himself.

And yet again those are just the lies we tell ourselves to escape the one fate we know will befall and influence us all.

Throughout this article, and many additional stories throughout the month of August, we will take a closer look at death. We will examine how humankind deals and has dealt with death throughout its history and how the perception of our mortality itself has changed with advancements in technology, economic uprising, and an increasingly globalized world. We take a look at the challenges death throws at us and what it truly means to die.

Self-Awareness Through Death

Death is the common denominator of all life as we know it, yet though we share it with other life forms, we humans are the only species that is self-aware, which is a blessing and a curse in itself. As we are aware of where we are, how we got here and where we want to go, we are also painfully aware of our inevitable demise.

While other species never enter a state of anxiety unless threatened by a predator, the human mind is very well able to enter the “fight or flight” stage because of imaginary threats, such as being reminded that our very existence is as fragile as a house of cards. So to avoid crippling anxiety attacks our ancestors thought of a few clever ways to turn their minds upside down. They just started believing in eternal life, and suddenly it all became bearable.

But let’s start at the beginning, the history of death starting right where it all began, back when our ancestors were still more closely related to apes in both visual appearance and behavior.

There is a chance that Proto-Humans, though more intelligent than animals, still didn’t necessarily have self-awareness. Some animals pass the “mirror-test” thus displaying a sense of self. Unfortunately, we are unable to get our hands on a living Proto-Human to see if they would recognize themselves in a mirror, so we have to look at death to give us an answer to the question of when our ancestors developed a sense of their mortality. We can assume that the awareness of one’s inevitable death is usually showcased in the careful or even ritual burying of the deceased in stark contrast of neglecting them instead.

The earliest confirmed burial was found in Israel and is thought to be about 100,000 years old, but also some of our closest human ancestors, the Neanderthals, were known to bury the dead with goods deliberately placed within graves. The placement of goods in graves also could mean that our ancestors could have believed the dead will have a use for them in a “later life,” though there is no way of actually knowing this with absolute certainty.

The tradition of burying the dead with gifts or their belongings has been existent in a lot of cultures since then. The most famous of them being the Ancient Egyptians, that buried their dead king with many gifts and riches and sometimes even buried people that were close to them in life in the same Pyramid.

In other cultures and religious beliefs, the dead have been treated very differently altogether, and the definition of a “good” or “decent” death itself seems to have changed through time and influence. The Vikings believed, among other things, that those who died at battle would rise to Valhalla, the hall of the Norse War King Odin to drink, fight, and eventually join in the biggest battle of all times alongside Odin himself.

There are much more mentions of a possible afterlife in historical sources about Vikings alone, though it is unclear how some of those were achieved and if the Viking culture had a unified belief of what exactly happened after death. There are possibilities that multiple “afterlife” scenarios existed depending on the cause of death. Even reincarnation was apparently believed to exist in parts of the Norse culture, a concept we today usually attribute to Hinduism.


Honor, Glory, and Religion

It’s not a coincidence every religion that ever had at one point incorporated the idea of everlasting life, either by entering a sacred place through death or by other means like reincarnation. By the definition of death as an entry point to a possibly better “life,” death was turned into a cause for happiness, a reward for a life well lived. And the differences between cultures and religions have been playing a huge role in how it was perceived as well.

Even suicide has not been uncommon to be considered a decent or even honorable end to one’s life in various cultures and religions. Most people have heard of the Japanese Suicide Tradition, Seppuku, meaning the ritual disembowelment by a horizontal cut in the abdomen practiced by Samurai. Older, “less civilized” (meaning not adhering to the rules later set in place by Seppuku) methods are also referred to as “Harakiri.”

During this time, if a Samurai brought dishonor to his Lord or when he lost a battle, a Seppuku was meant to restore his and his family’s honor. The tradition of Seppuku went as far as to even being an official capital punishment in Japan for a while.

While these rituals were reserved for high-rank males, women were known to take their life’s in a few cultures as well. Women in Japan were not allowed to perform the Seppuku, though Wife’s of the Samurai were allowed to take their lives through slashing their throats if either their Husband brought dishonor or sometimes even to avoid rape when a battle was lost. Further to the west, in Hinduism, it was considered a tradition for some wives to kill themselves on or by the funeral of their husbands.

Forced suicides or even murder to forcefully restore the honor of a single person or family is existent until today and has been an issue in several countries around the world.

Death has always taken a major role in all cultures and religions. It varied and adapted over time, though it was always firmly rooted in the belief that death, however crucial, was a portal to something new and more of an opportunity than the inevitable end.

Immortality Achieved — Trying to Cheat Death

The idea that death has a constant influence on our lives and the decisions we make has been manifested in the 70s by Ernest Becker in his book “The Denial of Death” (Pulitzer Price 1974). Nowadays, as many of us have either neglected religions or rather practice them as an afterthought, we’ve been confronted with the harsh reality of death once again.

In fact, the most basic of human desires like money, fame, popularity, and success can be traced back to our basic fear of death. Now that religions often cannot provide the security of a comforting afterlife for everyone, we try to achieve immortality by our terms, measured by how unlikely we are to be forgotten. The central idea of Becker is that all of us are, unconsciously, influenced to achieve great things in what we do, to leave a lasting impression beyond death as it is the closest state to actual immortality we can accomplish and, more importantly, influence.

It does not only makes sense if we think about it, but it has also been partially proven how just the slightest reminder of death can have an immediate effect on the decisions we make in direct correlation.

In “The Worm At The Core” by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, various observations have been made, building on the theories of Becker’s “The Denial of Death.”

They, for example, built two teams of judges and let them review and rule a case of illegal prostitution. The usual fine according to the law was 50$ at the time. Before the ruling, one group of the judges were made to fill out a questionnaire, asking them about the topic of death. This simple reminder was enough to have the group set the punishment at more than 450$ on average, nine times more as was the usual case, while the other group, on average, set the normal 50$ bail.

The conclusion here, as stated before, is when reminded of death we are more likely to try harder to succeed in the things we do, to leave a lasting image of ourselves. In this case, the judges ruled harder to enforce their vision of justice and the laws “more vigorously,” as the book explains, to uphold the law.

Digital Death

There is no denying that the world we live in is constantly changing and will never cease to do so. This has brought a great many changes in our society. The Digital Age has greatly impacted the way we interact with each other and, consequently, with death.

In times where soldiers do not have to actively engage with the enemy anymore, but observe through cameras in the sky, imitating god almighty, having people at their mercy with a press of the button, is changing the role of death entirely.

It has developed a certain disconnect with death altogether to the point where we only feel threatened if it could’ve happened to us. Unknown dead people on a different continent are hardly something we sweat about anymore.

We are all closer than we were ever before, everyone is just a touch or a click away. It opened up a million windows of opportunities, and it paved the way for a million more ways to be closer to death than before. We are all regularly informed by everything; we have a device in our pockets at all times telling us the news, counting the death tolls interactively while we sit in our homes, being more depressed by life than we ever were.

With all the progress we’ve made in such a short period, we also created more problems for us and our world. People stream deaths on Facebook, kids play morbid little games that sometimes end in fatalities, and it isn’t a short lived phenomenon this one. It is seemingly getting worse over time, it doesn’t need to be that way though.

Some nations have issues with suicides, like South Korea, where the numbers of elderly and teen suicides have reached record highs in recent years. Kids feel pressured to the point where death seems like a safe haven to flee from a life of endless stress and duties. On the other end, elderly in South Korea get increasingly neglected by their families through a change in lifestyle and fail to be part of a thriving economy that wouldn’t even exist if they didn’t build it in the first place.

While our minds are perfectly capable of reminding us that we’re mortal, the technologies we built remember us ten fold, and if used correctly, they can also show the damage we’ve all done. And yet most of us rather spend their days checking sports results or movie trailers and mourn the occasional celebrity, completely neglecting thousands that die of hunger every day. We mourn the single uncovered potential over the millions potentially unknown geniuses that never even had the decency of a proper childhood.

But it’s not even that. The use of services like Social Media has contributed considerably to an increase in suicides. We spend hours on the internet, and all we look at are mostly beautiful faces on gorgeous bodies, doing good deeds, being successful and all so often remind us that we are not. Most of us at least.

Technology has been the womb for cyber bullying, adding a layer to a phenomenon that’d do good without it. It keeps adding layers to all our lives, on all sides and it creates a dynamic we yet don’t fully understand it seems.

What remains is this. We are easily reminded that we are mortal every day, yet we reject the fact that death is an occurrence that makes us equals. More than any movement or charity could. Nor do we accept the fact that there are deaths we can avoid or at least acknowledge, and that we have an extraordinary power to wield. A power that we still don’t know how to put to good use.

Technology, just like the discovery of death for our ancestors, is a curse and an opportunity at the same time. Take what’s there, accept it and use it to make the best of it all. Otherwise, death is all there will ever be.

About Andreas Salmen

Born and raised in Germany, learned a job in IT and Business and ultimately decided that this wasn't exactly where my life was going to end. Left everything behind to become a writing backpacker instead. The world's crumbling away anyway so why not write about it and get a few good Instagram pics on the way, am I right?

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