Death in Human History

Are there historical themes that can help us confront our mortality?

Posted Jul 07, 2018

“Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life. . . . If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.” —St. Teresa of Avila

One theme runs through all of human history: Death is a mystery in which we are torn away from this world. It is clear that confronting death has been a human concern from the beginning, as archeologists have unearthed numerous sites of prehistoric ritual burial. The most ancient myths and religions attempt to make sense of death. In myths, the theme of death typically is not a final act of annihilation but is part of a larger process. This view is shown in the sacred Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita (c. 500-200 B.C.) which makes death the province of Shiva, the god of dissolution, not of destruction. Lucretius, the first century B.C. Roman poet and philosopher, wrote in his poem "De Rerum Natura" (On the Nature of the Universe) that death is not annihilation; rather, it breaks up connections and links them into new combinations.

Death in many cultures has been seen as part of the cycle of rebirth. Consider the myth of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Demeter’s only daughter Persephone was secretly carried off to Hades by Pluto, the lord of the underworld. No one would tell Demeter her daughter was in the land of the dead and her grief was so great that nothing could grow over all the Earth. Zeus saw he must save mankind from famine and struck a bargain with Pluto. Persephone would rejoin her mother on Earth for eight months of every year but would descend to Hades for the rest of the year. Then every year, fertility and abundance flourished when Persephone rose from the land of the dead and the death of winter followed when she returned to the underworld. For 2,000 years this myth was reenacted as part of the Eleusinian mysteries in Greece. The harvest celebration was held every five years for nine days in September and October. In addition to a cyclical focus myths often view death as the necessary condition for the transcendence of one’s own life, either in an experience of personal resurrection or in the onward march of future generations of one’s descendants. Another variation derives from the early myths and rites that centered on passage into puberty when death was seen as a rite of passage into another mode of existence. The Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.D.) stated “anyone anytime can lose life—no one can lose his death.”

The spread of agricultural societies revealed in new ways the necessity of death to ensure life. Among last year’s dead stalks the new shoots of spring flower. Bloody sacrifices were undertaken to ensure fertility. Indeed, all life forms, plant and animal alike, survive and advance only through the death of others. For thousands of years this process has been part of many traditions. It also has been a metaphor for self-renewal in the spiritual or psychological sphere. A centerpiece of most religions and psychologies is that one’s outmoded self must die in order to go forth and be transformed. In the words of Jesus, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matthew 16:25 and Luke 9:24). It also is arguable that death’s inevitability is a great motivator in the pursuit of excellence and to living with seriousness or passion as we may have so little time to achieve our goals. Zen master Yamamoto Gempo Roshi noted, “There is no murder worse than the killing of time.” Paradoxically, death is a tool of change and progress and as essential to the continuation of living things as fire is to the forest.

Denying Death

Over the course of human historical experience we see a fascinating variety of attitudes toward death. To some the fear of death is fundamental; to others, death is not even considered inevitable. You might be wondering: How could rational people possibly deny death? In fact there are many lines of thought and action that essentially boil down to ignoring or denying death.

In ancient Greece, Epicurus said “Death is nothing to us, since as long as we exist death is not with us, but when death comes, then we do not exist!” The hedonists of any time and place deny death by refusing to take it seriously. They look the other way and with extravagant intensity, indulge themselves and eat, drink and are merry no matter the consequences. The Promethean attitude defies the gods and denies death by raging against its inevitability. “Do not go gentle into the good night” wrote Welch poet Dylan Thomas. “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In such a view death is not so much a natural and intrinsic part of the life cycle but an external enemy, an unbearable evil affront. Against it man should wage unlimited struggle and spare no expense.

It is in this line of thought that we find the roots of the hubris of modern technology with its exaggerated expectations of science and industry and its refusal to accommodate a tragic dimension in life. To technology death is just another problem to be solved rather than a mystery that enlists all the spiritual understanding we can muster. Here we also find the modern nihilist angst, the anguish that accompanies the irreconcilable conflict between a human demand for life and rationality and a world that replies with what is seen as meaningless death. Very much a product of the modern technological age, this horror at sheer nothingness confronts many a twenty-first century existentialist.

It is interesting to review how people have tried to escape the sentence of death in the past. When Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513 he had been looking for three years for the fountain of eternal youth. European alchemists during the Renaissance experimented endlessly to discover an elixir of immortality. In Egypt and South America dead bodies were mummified, as though providing the physical stuff of life could somehow prolong life in some form. Perhaps the most well known of these attempts to counteract death are the pyramids of Egypt. These were monuments to the memory of the pharaohs in which they were buried as mummies with paraphernalia to accompany them on their future journeys.

It’s clear that the pyramid option was only available for the exceedingly rich and powerful. You’re much more likely to get around the finality of death by winning fame and leaving a legacy of some kind. If you are talented and fortunate, then the memory of your life will be celebrated or memorialized. For thousands of years though? It is after all a precarious immortality and the wrong things may be remembered. Nonetheless, wanting to be remembered and leaving a legacy probably is close to universal.