The Taboo of Death

How culture overcomes death anxiety

Posted Feb 26, 2019

Is there a taboo of talking about death? A line of thought in Western culture argues in favor of this idea, encompassing the concepts of the psychoanalyst Otto Rank and the philosopher Martin Heidegger in the first half of the 20th century, the American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in the 1970s, and today the American social psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski.

The Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank made the topic of death denial the central theme of his 1930 book Psychology and the Soul. Otto Rank was initially the secretary of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society founded by Sigmund Freud. He later split with Freud when it became clear that he had his own independent thoughts. The idea of the soul’s immortality, Rank argues, arose in response to our latent fear of death. Monotheistic religions, which promise life after death, emerged from this impulse. This idea is not terribly original, but Rank goes further. He continues that unconscious forces prevent individuals from thinking about death. Society has created mechanisms, forms of cultural adaptation, that are meant to keep people from becoming conscious of their creaturely (animal) nature—and, therefore, their mortality. Societal taboos and the privatization of biological needs follow from the fact that we—just like the neighbor’s dog—have a digestive system and a sex drive. Everything about us that might implicate creatureliness and mortality is covered by a cultural “shield.” In the 1970s, Ernest Becker popularized Rank’s and Heidegger’s ideas in his book The Denial of Death, for which he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize, two years after his own death caused by cancer. Heidegger comes into the picture as he claimed that temporality of our being points to our own death and that we should face this essential feature in order to lead a meaningful and authentic life.

The “terror-management theory” as developed by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski builds upon these ideas. That is, the social psychologists try to empirically validate the claim of how one's cultural or religious worldview, and one's self-esteem, serve a death-denying function. When reminded of one’s own death through the presentation of cues, participants in their studies typically become more culturally defensive and value more strongly symbols that give them significance in life. They then more positively view their own cultural/religious customs and beliefs and devalue those of other cultures and religions. That is, self-esteem that is endangered by the threat of death is boosted by referring more strongly to symbols of immortality (religion) or one’s own culture (essentially, your in-group), which has the authority of the right way of living. That is why foreign cultures pose a threat to some people as they hint at the relativity of one own’s cultural values. Since religious-spiritual behavior has decreased over time, at least dramatically so in the West, some theorists view an increased attendance of cultural events or the rise of nationalism as a modern substitute. If one no longer explicitly believes in God, one may seek other forms of cultural transcendence—transcendence in the sense of something eternally valid, such as art or music, or the own people and the nation.

What do study results show when death awareness has been explicitly assessed? Is the awareness of death stronger in elderly people whose life is, objectively speaking, coming closer? The Bonn Longitudinal Study of Aging has shown that the theme of death and dying does not stand in the foreground for older people who are healthy—at least on a conscious level. That would fit with Otto Rank’s idea of suppression of fear of death. In a more recent sociological study about the conceptions of death conducted by sociologists from Munich University led by Irmhild Saake, 150 interviews were analyzed. Three kinds of discourse emerged. “Death experts” had a clearly defined image of death, which may be religious in nature or, for that matter, cast in atheistic terms. In either case, death calls for no further investigation because the “experts” consider the answers plain enough: the religious ones know that God exists and there is life after death; the others know that nothing follows biological death. Decidedly religious individuals and atheists hold to an unwavering position that precludes further discussion. In contrast, for “deniers,” the subject of death is not a topic at all. They are concerned about the health and physical well-being of themselves and their children. They focus on life and avoid talking about death. If these were the only two ways of dealing with the matter, then death and dying would hardly come up at all; death-denial theorists have their position confirmed with these two categories in every respect. However, a third group exists: “death investigators.” These people openly ask themselves questions about death; they feel challenged by death and actively seek answers. As one might expect, sociological analysis of the ways people deal with the meaning of death offers a heterogeneous picture. There are true deniers, but there are also people who confront their mortality out in the open.

Otto Rank would probably argue that “death investigators” are repressing their actual fear of death. These individuals might be trying to achieve a sense of immortality by producing philosophical treatises; a courageous encounter with this weighty matter might make them feel heroic. Just how bold one is can be determined only on a concrete and individual basis, when we actually have to face dying and it is no longer a matter of books and coffee-house discussions. Empirical investigations related to the “terror management theory” present actual evidence of repressed thoughts about death which are revealed through cleverly devised manipulations in psychological experiments. Thereafter, we are all more or less affected by an underlying death anxiety that leads us to grandiose narratives of who we are and the culture we are embedded in. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has convincingly argued that homo sapiens conquered the world with the power of narratives. As illusory as these mythological, religious, scientific, or political stories may seem, they were the powerful driving forces for mankind that enabled us to now dominate and destroy planet earth. Today it is the ideology of consumerism that prevails across cultures. Shopping prevents us from thinking about death. Capitalistic consumerism thereby threatens the ecosystem of our planet.

References

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

Rank, O. (1930). Seelenglaube und Psychologie. Leipzig, Vienna: Franz Deuticke. Translated by G. C. Richter and E. J. Lieberman as Psychology and the Soul (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. New York: Penguin Random House.

Wittmann, M (2016). Felt Time. The Psychology of How We Perceive Time. Cambridge MA:  MIT Press.

Saake, I. (2008). Moderne Todessemantiken. In: I. Saake, W. Vogel (Eds.), Moderne Mythen der Medizin. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.