The Denial of Death

What I’m Reading:

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Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death.  Free Press, <new</new New York, 1973.

I’d like to introduce some of the more basic concepts of Becker’s masterpiece.  This self-restriction is due mainly to my lack of appropriate background and understanding of this incredibly dense book’s subject. 

Becker was primarily influenced by the psychological foundation of Sigmund Freud (or more specifically, Otto Rank, one of Freud’s close associates), Norman O. Brown, and the existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard (and to a lesser extent, Blaise Pascal).  Becker died in 1974 two months before this book won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.  He was a cultural anthropologist who sought to unite many disciplines, chief among them, psychology, philosophy and mythico-religion. 

Before I dive into some summaries and quotations from the first two chapters (which were most helpful to me), let me summarize some of the broad major thoughts of the book: 

1.  Mankind has two parts: body and mind.  Material and immaterial.  The body dies and cannot continue.  The mind, however, operates (or exists) in symbols: words, pictures, images, etc.  These two parts of mankind are in conflict because the mind sees the dying nature of the body and wants to escape to live on past the body.  However, the mind is tied to the body, and so dies when the body does. 

2.  If a person dwells too much on the reality of their own death, they will become despairing.  They will think (rightly) that nothing done (or undone) will matter, and that death can occur (potentially) at any moment.  For example, every adventure on the interstate highway system necessarily brings you very near to death.  Life is fragile and fleeting.  A person who dwells on this reality constantly will become depressed — and many people do.  For example, they might become obsessive about handwashing.  On the other hand, if a person dwells on their death in an unrealistic way, they become psychotic/schizophrenic — and some people do.  The more common way to deal with death, then, is to deny it.  (We’re using denial in the psychological sense, not the logical sense).  The mind is in denial about its own death.  It creates a self symbol that separates itself from all other existence.  That is to say, we all think we will be the only one to escape death. 

3.  This denial of death can be illustrated by other kinds of psychological death.  Of course, we would all admit that we will die someday, but we live as if we won’t.  Hence, the common deathbed regrets.  Further, we try to avoid reminders of our mortality.  Hence, the fear of hospitals, doctors, funerals, etc.   We are in denial about the possibility of death for those with whom we most closely associate — parents, children, spouses, close friends, etc.  For example, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, we are surprised when a close associate dies, thinking, “I never thought she would die.  She never died before.  That’s not like her — she is not the kind of person who dies.  She was sick…yes…but she never died before.  I never thought it would happen.” 

4.  Death bears no hope.  Ultimately, Becker has no hope for the future.  He is describes the problem for which he has no prescription.   

5.  All of us work on immorality projects.  We hope to become immortal before our body dies.  We can “live on” symbolically through our children, our work, our money, our good works.  In this process we deify those around us … our parents, our lovers, our leaders (religious, ideological, national, etc.).  Even those who claim to be atheists seek transcendent immortality.  Freud himself wanted very desperately to leave the legacy of being the Father of Psychoanalysis (and Wikipedia says he is).  The two times in his life when he fainted (the most powerful denial … the mind completely shuts down in the face of threat) were both when his legacy was threatened.

Chapter 1, Introduction: Human Nature and the Heroic
By nature (evolution?), mankind is narcissistic and selfish.  We crave some sort of “self-esteem” and to be the center of the universe.  Secondly, we are highly symbolic creatures.

“This is the reson for the daily and usually excruciating struggle with siblings: the child cannot allow himself to be second-best or devalued, much less left out. “You gave him the biggest piece of candy!” “You gave him more juice!” “Here’s a little more, then.”  “Now she’s got more juice than me!”  (p.3).
We have an innate desire to compare ourselves to others to demonstrate (with symbols) that we are more important, more influential, more successful, more significant than others, though we usually hide or deny this need.  This is the urge to heroism.  Every culture has a unique “hero script” and each individual has their own hero story, from high heroes like Churchill or Mao or Buddha, to the “low heroism of the coal miner, the peasant, the simple priest.” 

This search for meaning in heroism is a spiritual quest of every person and so every person is religious, even those who do not believe in God in the classical sense.

Chapter 2, The Terror of Death
“Heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death.  We admire most the courage to face death.” (p.11). 

We admire those who face death, and wonder if we could be so brave.  Anthropology and historical research tell us of numerous mystical cults whose mythical heroes face death, enter it, and return alive.  Christianity won the battle in the Western World with this story.  Every ancient mythical/religious tradition gives some sort of explanation of how death can be minimized or in some way, conquered.  There is some way in which the individual “lives on.”   

“The fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation.  But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one’s mental functioning; else the organism could not function.” (p.16). 

“Therefore in normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believe in our own corporeal immortality.  We are intent on mastering death…A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care.  He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it – but this is purely an intellectual, verbal admission.  The affect of fear is repressed.” (p.17)

Any thoughts?  Do you try to stay away from hospitals?  Funerals?  Have you ever wondered why?  What other thoughts (or feelings) are stirred up in you?


4 responses to “The Denial of Death

  1. “The fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation. But the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one’s mental functioning; else the organism could not function.”

    I’m fascinated by the ability of the human mind to find answers, outside of a Creator, for how we view our mortality. As I read brilliant thinkers like Freud and now Becker (who I never heard of before, so thanks for introducing him to me), I can always sense an underlying doubt; cracks in the pillars of their arguments. He makes some great observations, but you get the feeling he knows there is something more. He just refuses to acknowledge it.

    Good stuff.

  2. The Denial of Death is one of my favorite books.

    I wonder though how Ernest would deal with the apparent fact, that many people not only die and survive but also provide an after worldly life beyond their own death experience as accounted in numerous and varied Near Death Experiences (NDE)?

    I am also wondering if after replying to this article so long after it was published here, will I get a response?

    Maybe this thread has experienced an death of its own, shall it resurrect?

  3. death is not mere fear of one’s passing by…and the ‘no fear’ of dealing death. it is about how one is able to recognize its reciprocal essence to life….

  4. Eduardo Kelerstein

    This thread has resurrected, at least for now.
    I did not know anything about Ernest Becker until today, thanks for your resume.
    I find this most revealing and interesting…

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