photo by Tumisu from Pixabay

From information presented in:
Dobry, D. (2011). How Do Fan/Viewers Use Paranormal Reality Television and Associated Media to Interpret Death and the Afterlife?

Early in America’s history, death was seen as the doorway to one’s final reward. God’s “magnificent design” and man’s responsibility to pursue “one’s calling” within the community, while living a sin-free life were the basis of Puritan religious beliefs about the purpose of life, which, based on that perspective, defined the way communities responded to death. An individual’s death was a community affair—one that was related to the church and to supporting the family that sustained the loss. However, the advent of religious pluralism along with the expansion of literacy, science and technology, brought an evolution of views on the purpose of life that allowed fulfillment to no longer be limited simply to the promise of heaven once life ended.  

This major shift in the mid-nineteenth century, resulting from the transition taking place between the intimacy of bonds among people in small towns to a more impersonal link between interdependent strangers in larger urban areas (Kearl, 1989), brought about change in personal relationships to others in the community. Death, which had long been a community concern became a more private, family affair—people had to shoulder the burden of a loss on their own, without the support of (or possibly the intervention of) the entire community.  With a shift of life’s day-to-day meaning being more focused on things of a worldly nature, centered in the cities with people more independent of each other, ideas and fears about death also changed. Old-age care and actual death were the main sources of fear, rather than judgment in the hereafter, and the shift away from community involvement in individual loss of life led people to hide the pending approach of death in the family.

By the time the First World War ended, America was experiencing mass education, mass communication, differences in the sphere of work along with secularization of the everyday world. Not only did the life of an individual diminish in importance as compared to the business of life, death did, as well.  Unless one was a well-known statesman, one’s life and death became of little consequence in the scheme of things, and death eventually became a forbidden topic of discussion (Kearl, 1989).

Ariès, (1974) pointed out that this sense of alienation resulted in “the contemporary era of tabooed death…in part, from this cultural tendency to rely on others to define and to organize one’s fate” (p. 87). The idea of dying was depressing, and acknowledgement of its presence was disapproved of and considered shameful, particularly in a culture obsessed with youth. Not only was the acknowledgement of the act of dying something to be hidden, so was the reality and inevitability of death, in general. The need to find some way to be immortal and transcend biological life—to obscure aging and mortality—became more pressing without the reassuring traditional faith in religious beliefs, Ariès (1981) said. Ariès called it “death denied,” while Wass and Neimeyer (1995) called it “death rejected.” Freud (1953) suggested that it is impossible to accept the fact of one’s own death since, while in reality everyone dies, the subconscious conviction of our own immortality generates anxiety and fear. His solution was to suggest that it is best for people to abandon their beliefs in God or an afterlife all together.

The need to find some way to be immortal and transcend biological life—to obscure aging and mortality—became more pressing without the reassuring traditional faith in religious beliefs. 

Ariès (1981)

Ernest Becker (1973), like Ariès, speculated that the average person escapes the truth about life and death through cultural distractions that allow them to feel in control of their own life and death and to believe in their own power and self-worth. Terror Management Theorists Greenberg, Pyszczynki and Solomon (1999) put forth the idea that proximal defense mechanisms—or “pushing the problem of death into the distant future by denying one’s vulnerability” to conscious and non-conscious awareness of death—and distal defense reactions—those that allow an individual to find meaning in his or her existence—offer a means of protection against basic human fears that otherwise might surface when faced with threats.

While the fear of death may seem absent on the surface, Gregory Zilboorg (1943) wrote that its presence always exists underneath, manifesting itself indirectly through insecurity in the face of danger or in times of discouragement and depression. This fear, he says, must be repressed in order to live life on an even keel and to feel some level of comfort. It is only at the very end, when the repressed awareness comes to the surface, that the fear of death emerges completely, unless one has found a way to come to terms with the reality of death, he says, or to believe that when death occurs, life does not end.

This leads to the question: how do Americans find a way to come to terms with the reality of death? What do they believe and how do they come to develop those beliefs, especially those beliefs that fall outside of religious traditions or those that develop in the lives of people unaffiliated with a religious or spiritual practice?

More to come…

Ariès, P. (1974). Western Attitudes Toward Death. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Ariès, P. (1981). The hour of our death. New York: Knopf.

Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press.

Freud, S. (1953). Thoughts for the times on war and death. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 4. London: Hogarth Press.

Greenberg, J., Psyzczynski, T., and Solomon, S. (1999). A dual-process model of defense against conscious and unconscious death-related thoughts: An extension of Terror Management Theory. In American Psychological Association, Inc. Psychological Review, 10 (4), 835-845.

Kearl, M.C. (1989). Endings: A Sociology of Death and Dying. Cart, NC: Oxford University Press.

Wass, H. and Neimeyer, R.A. (1995). Dying; Facing the Facts (3rd ed.) Washington, DC: Taylor & Francis.

Zilboorg, G. (1943). Fear of death. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 12, 465-475.