The app We Croak got a few write-ups recently with its promise to remind us of our mortality five times a day. Anyone who keeps an eye on the news hardly needs reminding that death is everywhere, even if it isn’t touching our own lives right now. But knowing that people in general die is one thing. Accepting we ourselves will one day simply no longer exist, is quite another. How do we live, knowing this, especially as we age? 

Humans have faced this question ever since we became conscious, marked out from our ancestors and the animal kingdom by the fact that we know we will die. The knowledge could easily paralyse us, as with Philip Larkin in his poem Aubade when he reports seeing in the small hours:

“…what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
…The mind blanks at the glare… the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to.”

The authors of The Worm in the Core* have spent 30 years researching people’s attitudes to death and how these relate to their other beliefs and attitudes. Knowing we will one day die ought to terrify us, they say. Instead, humans through history have coped by convincing ourselves that we have significance beyond our lives. For example that:

  • we have a legacy to pass on to the next generation
  • we are part of some greater cultural, political or religious movement
  • we are valued by God
  • we have an eternal soul

“the striving for immortality – universal to all cultures – forestalls terror and despair”

Such beliefs, the authors say, have been important and influential in human history. These defence mechanisms for managing terror in the face of certain eventual death, are what allows humanity to be creative, develop technologies and to feel secure.

They compare our overarching belief about our place in the world to a roof which keeps water from coming into the house: it stops death thoughts becoming conscious by helping us believe we are valuable contributors to a meaningful scheme of things. Death thoughts that come to our conscious mind are like the rain that occasionally leaks through the roof.

We can’t allow too much of that, and we defend ourselves with humour, or blaming people for bringing death on themselves, or simply refusing to think about it. Yet as I’ve noted previously, we need to talk about death. A recent Radio 5 Live interview between presenter Tony Livesey and Moneysavingexpert’s Martin Lewis about losing their mothers in childhood brings home the damage done when people can’t express their grief. That’s why the charity Dying Matters campaigns to raise awareness of death, dying and bereavement, and an Oxford hospice signs up primary schools to talk about death.

This can take us in many directions, and painful, sombre reflection on the ‘sure extinction that we travel to’ will be part of it.

But reflecting on death and bereavement also prompts us to focus on the here and now. On hugging our loved ones close, today, as Martin Lewis describes. On appreciating life itself, for some people near the end of life speak of a heightened awareness of and connection to the beauty of the world. Like Oliver Sacks, speaking when terminally ill of seeing his life “as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life, on the contrary, I feel intensely alive.”

If being reminded of death helps us to appreciate life, I can see its point. As W H Auden concludes when addressing his five senses in Precious Five:

Be happy … so long as I’m alive
Nor try to ask me what
You should be happy for.
…I could find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on…
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn’t there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being 
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?

*The Worm in the Core: on the Role of Death in Life  Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski. They coin the phrase ‘terror management theory’ for their work.

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