Should we be afraid of death?
I am going to die.
You are going to die.
We are all going to die—each and every one of us.
There have been times in my life when this fact scared me, but should it?
What about you? Are you afraid of death?
Maybe the answer came to you quickly. Maybe you have to think about it. Maybe you don’t want to think about it.
Perhaps you’re questioning what it even means to die.
While you consider your own relationship with death, I’ll read our first quote.
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.
The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.
We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
That quote comes from Richard Dawkins in his book Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder*.
Dawkins may chide us for our dislike of death, but he is correct that the odds against you being born are truly astonishing. According to Dr. Ali Binazir, the odds of you being born are 1 in 10 to the 2,685,000th power. For comparison, the estimated number of atoms in the universe are 10 to the 80th power.
So. The odds of you existing are basically zero. And yet, here you are. Living, breathing, and quite possibly, afraid of your inevitable demise.
When we look at the data on the fear of death, also known as thanatophobia, it becomes clear that there are three main facets of death that scare us:
- First, the process of dying—Will it be painful? Will it go on a long time? Will it take away your autonomy and joy?
- Next comes the worry that someone you love will die—upending your life with grief.
- And finally, we fear what happens when we die. What comes next?
All three of these interconnected fears share one commonality: the unknown.
You don’t know what your death will look like.
You don’t know what you’d do without the people you love.
You don’t know what, if anything, will happen to you when you die.
We are the privileged few that have stirred at all, but now it’s all we know. We know how to handle our current aches and pains, but we hope for no more. We know the precious few people we can lean on, but we cannot bear the thought of them leaving us. We know how to be alive, but we do not know how to be dead, and we don’t get a say in the matter.
One unknown detail of my death plagues me more than any other: When? When I was a child, adults in their 30s seemed ancient and wise. Now, moving through the world as someone in my 30s, even people their 80s don’t seem all that old.
When I die, will my children be grown? How far will I have made it through that bucket list I’ve barely even written?
Most humans are brought up with faith in an afterlife. A common thread is found in the tapestry of life-after-death beliefs: retribution. How exactly that retribution will be paid varies widely. Some believe that a caste or species change is in order. Others are certain that a supernatural world awaits them on the other side.
Regardless of the specifics, the idea of one’s actions being tallied and judged in some way is nearly universal. While the rewards and punishments differ, religion in general tells us that this life is a cosmic test. Pass and you shall be rewarded; fail and your situation will be dire.
Many wish for a balanced world where good things happen to good people and vice versa. Thinking that the good among us will inherit the best of what the afterlife has to offer and that the villainous will get paid in kind appeals to a sense of order and justice. We want to believe that the wrongs of this life will be righted, even if we have to die to reach the final reckoning.
But what happens to our lives if we view them as an assessment?
If we trust most models of an afterlife, our existence is only a means to an end. Why look at the stars? Why fall in love? Why do anything other than study for the ultimate cosmic quiz?
But if there is no afterlife, then is there any meaning?
Does immortality add purpose to life or subtract it?
The artist Banksy once said,
They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.
A day will come when I am not alive.
Another day will come when I am not even remembered.
If I don’t make these moments count, these right-nows, then I will have wasted the only consciousness I know I get for sure. So, I make sure to look at the stars and fall in love, and rest and read and learn and grow and explore and connect.
What a glorious way to spend this lifetime. This one lifetime.
The fact that our life ends makes every moment precious, imbuing it all meaning.
It is better that I die. You too. Looking into our society’s past, we see that social evolution depends upon the death of old ideas and those that hold them. ‘Passing on’ is handing off the world to our children, hoping they get more right than we did. With our final breath, we are asking that they rid themselves of our prejudices and irrational behavior.
Little by little, person by person, our society changes. It could improve or worsen, but our fate would be sealed for the worse if we were immortal. Humanity cannot thrive without pruning the branches of our family tree, including the limbs where we ourselves grow.
I am thankful for death.
Carl Sagan* often said,
We are star stuff.
Our dead and decaying bodies will still be star stuff. Eventually, the atoms I currently call my own will scatter across the universe once more. I don’t know what my quarks and neutrons will be in another millenia, but they will exist. My mind may not be along for the ride but everything that I am made of will continue to swirl among the stars. What could be more adventurous than that?
I’ll leave you today with a quote within a quote written by Caitlin Doughty in her book, which I highly recommend, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory*. She said:
Death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.
So, back to our question. Should we be afraid of death?
Only if we are afraid to live.
Thank you for taking time to examine life with me.
Today’s closing quote is the poem Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep by Mary Elizabeth Frye:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.