The Fear of Death
“Death is nothing to us… it does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.” - Epicurus
Death can only be interpreted by people who are alive, yet since no one who is alive can simultaneously experience what it's like to be dead, who then does death actually concern? This logic is oddly reassuring. Even so, if my doctor were to call me up right now and tell me that I would die in 12 hours, I would still likely spend all that time in a state of debilitating fear and anxiety.
Just thinking about this possibility makes me realize that whether I like it or not, death terrifies me right now, even as a person who is fortunate enough to be in good health. It seems irrational and perhaps illogical to fear something that I have so little knowledge about or control over. But no matter what I do, I can’t seem to shake this nagging fear of the unknown.
And I'm not alone. According to the 2017 Survey of American Fears conducted by Chapman University, 20.3% of Americans are either afraid or very afraid of dying. But why do we have such a strong fear of death? The fear of death largely comes from the uncertainty and lack of control of the situation. But perhaps there’s a better way to think about our lives and our eventual passing that might end this fear, or at least chip away at its root cause.
To start off, let's talk about the only other life event, aside from death, which has happened and will continue to happen to every single person who will ever exist on this planet. Birth. Try to imagine the moment you were born. Of course you can’t actually remember this, I know, but just try for a second to bring yourself back to that time. The moment when you were pulled out of the darkness by a mysterious set of hands only to be flooded by fluorescent lights and the chaotic bustle of a delivery room.
As your eyes adjusted to the light for the very first time, you also had to take in a room full of total strangers who were likely all staring at you. Some of whom you would never see again, and others you could go on to spend the next 80-plus years with on this journey we call life. This journey that you, in that hospital room, however many years ago, had absolutely no tangible knowledge about. We talk about how scary death is, but the truth is birth was probably equally as scary, if not moreso. It’s no wonder that we judge the health of a newborn by how hysterically they cry in the delivery room.
My point in bringing all of this up is to say that death isn’t the first life-changing existential experience you’ve gone through. Was birth scary? Most likely. But every single day since then you learned more and more about the experience that is being alive. To the point where the thought of going back to the state you were in before birth has now become the idea you fear. Mark Twain once wrote, “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.“
This perfectly expresses another truth that most people fail to consider when it comes to death. We all know and seem to accept easily that there was an infinite amount of time before we were alive on Earth, so why is it so hard for some of us to grapple with the fact that there will also be an infinite amount of time that comes after our existence on Earth? When someone dies at an early age we feel great sadness for all the earthly events they won’t get to be a part of. But when a baby is born we don’t mourn everything they missed out on before their delivery.
We all seem to know how nonsensical it would be to feel sad about that. A baby’s time of birth is what it is — a fixed situation which nobody really has any control over. But when it comes to death there seems to be so many what if’s or if only’s involved. Maybe it's because the how and when of our passing seems to say something about the way that we lived. Consider the death of Robert Atkins, the man who dedicated a large majority of his life to refining the Atkins diet and preaching it as the most health-conscious way to live, only to die by slipping on an icy sidewalk.
People often reference this as a way to say that death is inevitable no matter how healthily one chooses to live. A message which, ironically enough, is the exact opposite of the one Atkins spent his life trying to convey. Stories like Robert’s are another major reason why some of us find death so frightening. The idea that the where, how and when of our passing puts a climactic punctuation mark at the end of our existence and somehow adds to the definition of what our life meant. You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
We seem to accept and even participate in creating these punctuations, or labels, even when it comes to external things and people that we have no interpersonal connections to. When a breaking news story emerges where an innocent person is murdered, the majority of us collectively label their life as beautiful and their death as tragic. And when that person’s killer is found guilty and sentenced to death, we label their life as despicable and their death as deserved. Labeling others is a comforting habit that is strongly hardwired into our psychology. It's part of how we organize, simplify and make sense of our world.
Yet we all know that even the best one-word label couldn’t possibly be used to sum up the entirety of who and what a person is, and what the life they lived was. And so the idea that our death could assign us with one of these simplistic labels, which do not allow any room for the complexity of who we really were, is terrifying. If there's anything certain and non-debatable, it is that death is a termination of our physical bodies. Our hearts stop beating, our neurons cease firing, we take one last breath. Our physical presence here on Earth is terminated at the time of our deaths.
While this is undeniably true, it still leaves us with multiple unanswerable questions. A large one being, are we just a body? A spectacularly designed or random collection of cells, atoms and molecules that is purely physical? Or, is it possible that we are composed of a physical body, a physical mind and something else? Something intangible and non-physical like, for lack of a better term, a soul? This debate has been going on between philosophers for a millennium.
Epicurus believed, quite adamantly, that we were merely physical beings whose deaths were a total annihilation of our existence, while some of Plato’s most famous dialogues argue for the ‘immortality of the soul.’ If you believe that there is nothing more to us than the atoms and DNA that compose our physical bodies and minds, then you might be what modern philosophers call a physicalist.' If, on the other hand, your inclination is to believe that we are composed of a physical body, a physical mind and something intangible that resembles a soul, then you might be what they call a dualist.
There are other variations and sub-sects of these definitions, but for simplicity’s sake we’ll leave it there. Thinking back now to the problem of death with all this in mind, we can clearly see that whether or not someone is a dualist or a physicalist makes an enormous difference in the ways they would interpret their beliefs about death. And ultimately whether they would fear death or not. If death is a definitive end to the physical body then, as far as physicalists are concerned, death is a pretty straightforward pill to swallow. Death is just the end.
But for dualists, the possibilities are quite endless. For if we possess something like a soul, then the range of options of what could happen to that soul after our physical bodies die is wide open. While some people cling to religious texts and beliefs for some answers and comfort, non-religious people are left with a huge uncertainty over what life after death holds. And as humans, we have evolved to be naturally scared of the unknown. Maybe the best place to turn to for further investigation of death is to consider the stories of people who have died.
The Near Death Experience Research Foundation presents what many would consider to be the most compelling scientific evidence for life after death. Jeffrey Long, the foundation’s creator, has studied and examined the accounts of thousands of people who have reportedly had near-death experiences. While no two people’s near-death experiences (NDEs) are exactly the same, there are characteristic features that have been commonly observed.
Long has conducted and posted 5,100 interviews to date with people who have claimed to have had an NDE and compiled the data he’s gotten from them over the years. In this, he identified 12 essential elements that are consistently present in his subjects. Some of which are an out of body experience, encountering deceased relatives, friends or mystical beings, and experiencing a sense of alteration in time or space. Technically speaking, having any kind of lucid experience while one is clinically dead, without a heartbeat, should be impossible.
Still, 74% of the people interviewed reportedly felt more conscious and alert during their time spent dead than they did in their waking lives. The remaining 20.4% reportedly felt the same amount of conscious awareness in death as they do alive, while only 5.2% said they experienced less. Even though the belief that death is the end of our consciousness is relatively common, out of the thousands of people who participated in this survey, only 5% reported that to be true for their near-death experience. These statistics are startling, for sure, and there are plenty more like this that are equally compelling.
But I think sometimes it can be too easy to tune out the significance of figures like these because, well, you can find statistical data to support just about any claim you’re trying to make these days. Perhaps a more powerful and effective way to discuss NDEs is to delve into specific stories. Take this one, for example, reported by a woman who died by accidental electrocution at the age of seven.
“I was transported out of my body and surrounded by the brightest warmest light ever. The only way to explain it is our true home. It felt very familiar, it felt like home. I had never felt at home here on Earth before or after this experience. I didn't feel or see my body. I believe I was more like a pure light source that just flows like a river of pure love and joy. I was just so happy to be home.” Another person claimed that “The Earth is like a film that hasn’t been developed. Not until we reach the other side, is the film developed. Everything will be seen in beautiful colors that don't exist here on Earth. .” And another said, “In an instant, I knew that the life we live is an illusion. It's not real because it's a creation of our minds. We continually create thoughts and then project these thoughts outside of the mind, just as cinematic frames are projected onto a screen.”
Reports like these are incredibly interesting, but you might be wondering where the proof is. For all we know, these are just subjective accounts that people could just be making up. And you would be right. Sadly, as of right now, there is no definitive proof of the validity of NDEs. Like you, I also started off my research into this a little bit skeptical, but the more of these stories I heard and read over time, the harder it became for me to believe that there wasn’t at least some validity to them.
No matter what belief you choose to carry with you about what happens to us after we die, I think it's important to research the literature out there, learn what the people who have first-hand knowledge have to say and use all of that information to form a real, thought-out opinion for yourself. Because, sadly, there is no way to tie a bow on this topic and wrap it up nicely. No matter what any of us say, death will always remain an existential mystery. But if you struggle with the fear of death, here is something that helped me tremendously, in hopes that it helps you too. The most comforting thing about death is that it will happen to us all.