The Fear of Death

Should my heart not be wretched, my features not haggard?
Should there not be sadness deep within me? [...]
Enkidu, whom I love deeply, who went through every hardship with me,
the fate of mankind has overtaken him.
Six days and seven nights I mourned over him
and would not allow him to be buried
until a maggot fell out of his nose.
I was terrified by his appearance,
I began to fear death, and so roam the wilderness. [...]

I am going to die!---am I not like Enkidu?!
Deep sadness penetrates my core,
I fear death, and now roam the wilderness.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumer, ca. 2000 B.C.; Tablets IX and X)


Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.
He springs up like a flower and withers away;
like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure. [...]
Man's days are determined;
you have decreed the number of his months
and set limits he cannot exceed. [...]

If only you would hide me in the grave
and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time and then remember me!
If a man dies, will he live again?

All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come.
You will call and I will answer you;
you will long for the creature your hands have made.
Surely then you will count my steps but not keep track of my sin. [...]

But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
and as a rock is moved from its place,
as water wears away stones and torrents wash away the soil,
so you destroy man's hope.
You overpower him once for all, and he is gone.

Job 14:1-20
[ More excerpts from the Book of Job ]

Men fear Death as Children fear to go in the Dark. And as that Natural Fear in Children is increased with Tales, so is the other.

Francis Bacon, Essays II

"I am body and soul"---so speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children?

But the Awakened, the enlightened man says: I am body entirely, and nothing beside; and soul is only a word for something in the body.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

We will die and we fear death. This fear is worldwide and transcultural. It probably has significant survival value. [...] Those who propose rational and skeptical discourse on things religious are perceived as challenging the remaining widely held solution to the human fear of death, the hypothesis that the soul lives on after the body's demise. Since we feel strongly, most of us, about wishing not to die, we are made uncomfortable by those who suggest that death is the end; that the personality and the soul of each of us will not live on.

Carl Sagan, Broca's Brain (1979; p.364)

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. [...] Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.

1 Corinthians 15:12-18

Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie. [The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.]

Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1662)

An entire mythology has grown up around the process of dying. Like most mythologies, it is based on the inborn psychological need that all humankind shares. The mythologies of death are meant to combat fear on the one hand and its opposite --wishes-- on the other. They are meant to serve us by disarming our terror about what the reality may be.

Sherwin Nuland, How We Die (1994; p. 8)

If this myth is tragic, that is because the hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? [...] The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. [...] The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. [...] For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. [...] Sisyphus teaches us the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. [...] One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.

I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.

Richard Feynman The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1981; p.25)

I cannot conceive of a god who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egotism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and a glimpse of the marvellous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

Albert Einstein, The World as I See It (1934)

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. [...]

If there were life after death, I might, no matter when I die, satisfy most of [my] deep curiosities and longings. But if death is nothing more than an endless dreamless sleep, this is a forlorn hope. Maybe this perspective has given me a little extra motivation to stay alive.

The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions (1997; p.258)
[Written just weeks before Sagan's death, with full awareness of his terminal disease.]

'The Scream' by Edvard Munch But all of us, and scientist are no exception, are vulnerable to the existential shudder that leaves us wishing that the foundations of life were something other than just so much biochemistry and biophysics. [...] I look in the mirror and see the mortality and I find myself fearful, yearning for less knowledge, yearning to believe that I have a soul that will go to heaven and soar with the angels.

William James: "At bottom, the whole conception of religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe."

The manner of our acceptance. It can be disappointed and resentful; it can be passive and acquiescent; or it can be the active response we call assent. When my awe at how life works gives way to self-pity because it doesn't work the way I would like, I call on assent--- the age-old religious response to self-pity, as in "Why, Lord? Why This? Why ME?" and then, "Thy Will Be Done."

As a religious naturalist I say "What Is, Is" with the same bowing of the head, the same bending of the knee. Which then allows me to say "Blessed Be to What Is" with thanksgiving. To give assent is to understand, incorporate, and then let go. With the letting go comes that deep sigh we call relief, and relief allows the joy-of-being-alive-at-all to come tumbling forth again.

Assent is a dignified word. Once it is freely given, one can move fluidly within it.

Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature (1998; p.47)

When without fear you have faced and accepted the riddle of the Sphinx, death has no further hold on you, and the curse of the Sphinx disappears. The conquest of the fear of death is the recovery of life's joy. One can experience an unconditional affirmation of life only when one has accepted death, not as contrary to life but as an aspect of life. Life in its becoming is always shedding death, and on the point of death. The conquest of fear yields the courage of life.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (1988, p.152)

If I think well of life, then for the same reason I must think well of my death.

Zhuang Zhou, Zhuangzi (ca. 400 B.C.)

We die so that the world may continue to live. We have been given the miracle of life because trillions upon trillions of living things have prepared the way for us and then have died---in a sense, for us. We die, in turn, so that others may live. The tragedy of a single individual becomes, in the balance of natural things, the triumph of ongoing life. [...]

The dignity that we seek in dying must be found in the dignity with which we have lived our lives. Ars moriendi is ars vivendi. The art of dying is the art of living. The honesty and grace of the years of life that are ending is the real measure of how we die. It is not in the last weeks or days that we compose the message that will be remembered, but in all the decades that preceded them. Who has lived in dignity, dies in dignity.

Sherwin Nuland, How We Die (1994; p. 267)

It has usually been assumed that death as such is a very great evil and the worst enemy of man. [...] Yet death in and of itself, as a phenomenon of Nature, is not an evil. There is nothing mysterious about death, nothing supernatural about it [...] On the contrary, death is an altogether natural thing and has played a useful and necessary role in the long course of biological evolution. [...]

When we attain the realization that death finishes the story, we know the worst. And that worst is not really very bad.
[...] It is the living, not the dead, who suffer when death has done its work. The dead can no longer suffer; and we may properly praise death when it puts and end to extreme physical pain or distressing mental decay. [...] After life's fitful fever they sleep well; nothing can touch them further, not even dreams. The grave, as Job said, is a place where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. Those who have passed on prematurely or in any other way can experience no sting, no sorrow, no disappointment, no remorse, no anything. As Epicurus pithily summed up the matter three hundred years before the birth of Christ: "When we are, death is not; and when death is, we are not."

[...] Today in the world large numbers of persons find themselves in a state of unhappy suspense over the idea of immortality. They are unable either to believe or disbelieve. They feel that personal survival is a rather doubtful proposition; yet the possibility of it continues to haunt them. A definitive settlement of the issue cannot but be for them a psychological gain. And there can be no question that their resolute acceptance of the fact that immortality is an illusion would be all to the good. It is best not only to disbelieve in immortality, but to believe in mortality. This means not only to believe positively that death is the end, but also to believe in the worth-whileness of human life on this earth and in the high intrinsic value of men's ethical and other attainments during that life. [...] There will be no second chance; no fresh opportunity in some immortal realm to redeem ourselves and alter the irreversible imprint of our lives. This is our only chance.

The truth about death frees us from both debasing fear and shallow optimism. It frees us from self-flattery and self-deception. [...] Finally, the knowledge that immortality is an illusion frees us from any sort of preoccupation with the subject of death. It makes death, in a sense, unimportant. It liberates all our energy and time for the realization and extension of the happy potentialities of this good earth. It engenders a hearty and grateful acceptance of the rich experience attainable in human living amid an abundant Nature. It is a knowledge that brings strength and depth and maturity, making possible a philosophy of life that is simple, understanding, and inspiring. We do not ask to be born; and we do not ask to die. But born we are and die we must. [...] Yet between birth and death we can live our lives, work for and enjoy the things we hold dear.

Corliss Lamont, The Illusion of Immortality (1965, pp.267-278)

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