For some years now people have been saying that death is to us what sex was to the Victorians, suppressed as a topic in ordinary society, repressed as a future certainty by most people most of the time, something children should be shielded from, for they are not to be admitted to the bedside of the dying or allowed to see dead human bodies and they are told stories about death analogous to the stories that used to be told, perhaps still are told in prim circles, about gestation and birth. Death is now prettified out of existence by the relentless and mendacious undertaking industry, with its euphemisms (“casket,” “passed away,” “loved one”) and its painting and mummification of the corrupting body so that it may appear to be something else. After all, sexual repression hasn’t been abolished by frankness in talk, and it may be that the repression of the thought of death is not altogether separable from sexual repression. The interest we have in necrophilia, and the repugnance we at the same time have for it, are both evident. Stories about the English necrophile Christie, who strangled women in order to copulate with them, are eagerly read. So far as I know such acts have not yet been performed on the screen or mimicked in the theater, but my information may well not be up-to-date.

Despite their being banned from polite conversation death and dying are now forcing their way into public discussion. For this there are many reasons. I choose the following as perhaps the more important. There is the now established belief that the living rather than the dead are being exploited by the undertaking industry. Exposures of its practices are popular—Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death is the best known of these—and a critical attitude to undertakers blends with an increasingly admitted discontent with doctors and hospitals. These last have changed the whole setting and process of dying (as of birth) in recent years. Formerly we were born in the bed in which we were conceived and if we were lucky we died in it or in one like it, speaking so long as we were conscious with the friends and relatives round the bed, nourished at this final moment by the sacramental ordinances of a church, and having our eyes shut by those who were closest to us in life.

Men now begin to see that the loss of the old setting for death and the pattern of mourning that surrounded it has taken from us something that helped to reconcile the dying to their condition and rendered cathartic the grief of the living. Changes in medical technology and the emasculation or decay of traditional religion have combined to present us with a situation men are coming to find disquieting. Again, changes and discoveries in medicine have raised hard questions in moral casuistry. When is a man really dead? (Discussion of this has been forced by the demand for organs that are biologically viable with which to patch up the living.) If a man is dying anyway and can only be kept in existence, either in conscious misery or in merely vegetable life, through being attached to machines, ought we to strive officiously to keep him alive? Is there a moral distinction between deciding not to use antibiotics or mechanical respirators to keep the dying alive for a short and miserable time and giving a patient an injection that will end his life?

Finally, the phenomenon of death has in our time become bizarre. Auschwitz and Treblinka, Kolyma and Vorkuta, Dresden and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, these are names that represent terrible, uncanny realities that are nevertheless unbelievable and inconceivable. They raise perplexing questions about the nature of our time, questions that are at the same time about death and its meaning—or its absurdity—for us.

To fear death and to be saddened by the deaths of others, there is nothing strange here. Such attitudes are universal. In Judaism and Christianity death is an enemy, a sign of a mysterious estrangement of man from God, even though it may be met piously and in hope. Philosophy cannot take away the terror of death. “Death is not an event in life; death is not lived through,” said Wittgenstein. Hamlet and Claudio (see Measure for Measure, III, i) would not have failed to see the point of the remark, but seeing it would not have removed for them death’s mystery and dread. About the deaths of others we sometimes seem to feel differently, especially about such deaths as are attended with great suffering, and we may even say (or, if we no longer say it, we see its point): Those whom the gods love die young.

All the same, it seems easy for some to put death out of the upper reaches of the mind. Dr. Kübler-Ross, whose magnificent pioneering work in American hospitals is gradually shifting attitudes to the terminally ill receiving hospital care, conjectured, surely with justice, that the initial difficulties she came across in getting at such patients so that she might talk to them about their condition were signs of the failure of doctors and nurses to recognize the reality of death as it applied to themselves. To refuse to recognize in practice the fatal illness of a patient is to refuse to recognize in the patient the possibility of one’s own death.


A phobia about death looks like a problem for analysis. Now, two things are commonly taken for granted in our thinking about the soul (I use “soul” as the vernacular equivalent of psyche). Inner conflict is painful and we strive to overcome it, to find a position of rest and harmony. Of course, our strivings may bring about the opposite of what we want. The health of the soul is thought to rest upon the acceptance of the real, whereas sickness essentially goes with a refusal to accept reality, harsh and disagreeable as the real may often be. Thus, neurosis and psychosis spring from inner conflicts that the subject doesn’t recognize; and in principle the overcoming of the inner conflict comes about through the subject’s recognizing it for what it is (this means understanding its history, how it arose in the first place).

But how is it possible for so universal a topic as death, one which is about a great human certainty (all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal, as the old logic books used to say), how is it possible for such a topic to be so deeply disturbing, to represent so evidently painful a conflict, to generate so many taboos, to be protected as sexual relations are by powerful rituals and tough institutions, rituals so powerful and institutions so tough that their weakening and absence are now felt to be grievous? Perhaps there are some obvious explanations to be looked at before we engage in any deep analysis of the problem. More people today, in Western societies, think that to die is to be annihilated. Our knowledge of the clinical process of dying in modern hospitals under controlled conditions tells us that our deaths may be lonely and unregarded; we naturally fear such an end.

And perhaps most of us who live in tranquility in Western societies are necessarily less familiar with death than our grandfathers were. In the nineteenth century young men and women died of tuberculosis, pneumonia was a great killer at all ages; above all, children died, and women in childbed. The present writer was fiftyeight years old before he was present at a deathbed. Death, hard to come to terms with in any case, since it means the end, in the case of men and women of mature years, of a vast and long-cherished project, becomes harder to imagine in a society in which it isn’t visible and seems something surgery and antibiotics enable us to put off indefinitely. We know perfectly well we shall die; and we know that our time has seen large-scale death of a kind without parallel in history. But perhaps such knowledge doesn’t cohere with our felt experience.

The little book by Lifton and Olson is a kind of pop guide to recent discussion of the topic of death. It is slapdash and superficial and doesn’t contain much hard argument. The following is a characteristic generalization.

Death has now become unacceptable because it is associated with images of absurd holocaust and annihilation and because our lives have become rootless and disconnected.

“Rootless” is an interesting expression because it suggests at once two quite distinct ideas that nevertheless fuse: things that ought to have roots but don’t are, first, not nourished, and then liable to be blown away by the first strong wind. “Disconnected” isn’t so rich an idea, for it isn’t clear what we are disconnected from and why this is bad. I suspect that something like “incoherent” is meant, for the authors make much of the absence from our culture of generally recognized rites of passage from stage to stage of life and from life to death, something that is a consequence of the decline of institutional religion; we suffer from, in their infelicitous phrase, “psychohistorical dislocation.” But their study is very thin, and very careless, too. They actually argue that in Calvinism only the elect have “the right of immortality.” This is an ignorance so gross that I am sure the authors must know better. They can write such a sentence as this: “Many [Vietnam veterans] are haunted with guilt and disturbing memories of brutal atrocities of which they were a part.”


Ernest Becker’s book is quite another thing. It is an absorbing study of what psychoanalysis and closely related traditions have to say on the topic of death. It isn’t easy to summarize and two careful readings haven’t been enough for me to state with any confidence the essence of what Becker has to say. To call him eclectic as a theorist would convey the wrong impression. In the psychoanalytical tradition it is Otto Rank who has had the greatest influence on him; but perhaps the most important influence (of course, after Freud) is Kierkegaard, whose picture of “the Knight of faith” he finds sympathetic. He rejects the suburban optimism of many neo-Freudians and although he admires Norman O. Brown immensely he has no patience with the paradise of polymorphous pleasures. Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended. The side of Freud he admires most is his grim honesty. He reminds us that Freud said that “he cured the miseries of the neurotic only to open up to him the normal misery of life.”

But what is the inner conflict from which the death phobia comes; and if we can isolate and understand the conflict, in what way can we recapitulate its origin so that we come out of the conflict and recognize the truth about ourselves and the world? Becker rejects the associated Oedipus and castration complexes as basic grounds for the fear of death. The trouble is deeper and comes from our fundamental situation as embodied intelligences.

…the essence of man is really his paradoxical nature, the fact that he is half animal and half symbolic [sic: I think symbol-maker and-user is meant]…. We might call this existential paradox the condition of individuality within finitude. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature…. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity…. Yet, at the same time,…man is a worm and food for worms.

Alone of the animals man knows he will die; and it is suggested that anxiety over mortality is present even in the infant before he can formulate discursively his dual situation. What we primarily repress is not our sexuality but our consciousness of death. Sometimes Becker seems to argue that the consciousness of death is a particularized form of the Angst referred to by Kierkegaard, for whom anything, from the stellar universe to the smallest fly, could be a source of dread. This seems plausible, especially if one takes this dread to include Rudolf Otto’s “sense of the Numinous,” panic terror that can nevertheless include devotion and a fearful love.

Becker doesn’t think there are any tricks, certainly there is no assured therapy, to make the terror of existence go away. The kind of person we call “balanced” or “well-adjusted” has, it is true, at least for a time, so organized his repressions and balanced the resulting neuroses that he may seem a living refutation of the universality of existential terror. But the beguiling surface conceals horrors: vampirism (living off the substance of others); psychosomatic illnesses; bad dreams; jealousies; aggression. But isn’t there, if not a way of overcoming the fundamental situation of man, at least a position to be adopted, a disposition to be cultivated, an attitude that rests upon truth? Becker’s answer is not to me perfectly clear. He seems to want to say two things. First, heroism is to be commended; the world is, in William James’s phrase, “a theater for heroism.” Not to be a hero (compare Péguy’s “not to be a saint”) is the saddest failure. Freud is a fine example of the heroic; bereaved, in exile, betrayed (as he thought) by so many, a cancerous jaw, yet working, working up to the end. Then, he finds certain possibilities roughed out by religion.

There is a driving force behind a mystery that we cannot understand, and it includes more than reason alone. The urge to cosmic heroism…is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism.

A wonderful, rich, ramshackle book. I’m not sure in what way it is appropriate—if it is—that the author died shortly after his book was published. But for those who would wish to go on with the conversation it is a severe loss.

Some Protestants, some Jews, some Catholics, still contrive to make death bearable for the dying and the bereaved. But even for them the framework within which they place death is not something they can, so to speak, hold tightly all the time. An exemplary death, such as that of Samuel Johnson, is now much harder to achieve. All his life Johnson had a terror of death that was thought morbid in his own day. He was eminently the kind of person a doctor today might think ought not to be told about his condition. But this is how he met his death. “Give me,” he said to his physician, “a direct answer.”

The Doctor having first asked him if he could bear the whole truth, which way soever it might lead, and being answered that he could, declared that, in his opinion, he could not recover without a miracle. “Then, (said Johnson,) I will take no more physick, not even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to GOD unclouded.”

Deaths such as this were not in all respects peculiar to religious believers. Throughout the nineteenth century agnostics, or many of them, met death with a conscious acceptance. John Stuart Mill is a good example. Such men wanted to know if they were dying; they took the moment of death to be a great climactic experience of which a man ought not to be robbed. They would have found it ignoble that a man should be lied to and ushered out of existence in a state of ignorance. Henry James’s salutation—“So here it is at last, the distinguished thing”—serves to mark the end of this tradition.

There is no logical connection between the agnostic’s acceptance of death as the climactic act of life and the belief in survival that lies behind the attitude to his own death of Doctor Johnson. It is all the same an interesting circumstance that the great change in the attitude to death is coincidental with the decline in the belief that men survive their deaths. Just as George Eliot, say, and T.H. Huxley didn’t seriously question the morality associated with religious belief, so too they didn’t question the ideal style in which death was to be met: family and friends grouped round the bed, the dying man conscious of the process he was undergoing, farewells, final dispositions, last words. It is true, for them there is no viaticum, no journey money, for there is neither Charon nor God’s judgment to be awaited. Perhaps when this became a felt absence the ideal changed.

In the new style the enviable way to die is swiftly, without awareness of what is happening; if one isn’t fortunate in this way, and there are no pleasures left in living, or only pains, then a swift passage into oblivion is to be desired. Hilma Wolitzer’s powerful novel about the death of a young husband and father gives an example of that bleakness which overcomes the soul, in our culture, when, for example, death through cancer breaks the ties of love that hold together husband and wife in a fruitful marriage. In this case the husband and wife are Jewish, but there seems to be no thought of, no comfort in, the Jewish tradition. The God of Israel who delivers his people from bondage, the piety of the Psalmist, the great final cry of the believing Jew, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” none of these seems any longer to have meaning. Instead, the young wife, woken to be told that her husband has died in his sleep, finds only “a dead body, nothing more…. The force of life, gone. The miracle of emotion, gone. Nothing.”

The Jewish tradition in the matter of death is full of strength, vigor, and sanity. This is the impression one draws from the essays that make up Jewish Reflections on Death. The wisdom and beauty of the prescriptions for the deathbed and for the business of mourning, the Halakhah, are sobering and instructive for the participants. The reflections on death in the modern world are, as one would expect, intelligent. Above all, there is a selection (one finds it too short) from accounts of the deaths of the Hasidic masters. Here the chief emphasis is on death as the encounter of the soul with God. The Shekinah, the sometimes visible manifestation of the divine glory, is said to hover above the bed of the dying.

A second reading raises some suspicions that religious Judaism, strong though it is, may be wounded by the secularization of the general society within which it exists as a subculture, as Christianity, the dominant religion, is to a much greater degree.

A principal sign of this is the omission from modern prayer books and from the curriculum of religious instruction in Jewish schools of the beautiful prayers to be said by the dying. These include an acknowledgment that even death is a gift of God’s love, an admission of sin and a prayer to be brought to eternal life, a prayer for the welfare of the family that is being left behind, and finally, “Into Thy hands I return my spirit…. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” It is incomprehensible that, as the editor puts it, children should be cheated out of this part of their inheritance. It is even psychologically absurd, for it seems to suppose that small children, those centers of appetite, fear, and rage, need to be protected from what is “morbid.” (The same impulse may be detected in common expurgations of the fairy stories of the brothers Grimm; The Juniper Tree is made so unintelligible by its being bowdlerized that it is often just excluded from the canon.)

There are hints, too, that Jews who are not deeply religious do not always resist the temptation to prettify death offered by the undertakers, despite the total conflict between the practices of the modern undertaker and the prescriptions of Jewish piety. It is an extraordinary piece of historical irony that Jewish decadence should bring it about that the pieties of Israel are abandoned for the embalming techniques of the ancient oppressors.

What may be at the center of the crisis of Judaism in this matter is something only remotely connected with what may be felt to be inconvenient or archaic in Jewish mourning and funerary practices. It is the change in the attitude to survival. It is true that the Judaism of the earliest strata of the Old Testament is unique among religions in not seeming to raise the question of individual survival as a distinct problem. But in later Judaism, in the Hasidic tradition, in the prayers to be said by the dying, the question about survival is not answered ambiguously.

In the last document in the book, the reproduction of an “ethical will” written in recent years, we find the following. First, there is a slightly joking passage in which the writer, after saying that he hopes to live to see all his children happily married, adds: “if not, I’ll be watching from somewhere anyway.” Later, he writes: “To us as Jews, life is its own raison d’être, its own self-justification; we await neither heaven nor hell.” Again: “the only immortality I seek is that my children and my children’s children be good Jews, and thereby good people.” But compare this with what we find in the earlier tradition.

The Rabbi of Berditchev said before he died that when he arrived up there he would not rest nor be silent, nor would he allow any of the holy ones to rest or be silent until the Messiah should come. But when he came there the beauties and wonders of heaven overwhelmed him, so that he forgot about this.

It is a great question whether or not the piety and dignity with which death was met in the old religious traditions, and by the unbelievers and half-believers who lived within these traditions and shared many of their moral attitudes, can in the end persist without a belief in the survival of bodily death. This has nothing to do with the corrupting superstitions of spiritualism and of fashionable forms of occultism; but it does have something to do with the possibility of something other than the “nothing” of the bereaved wife in Ending. Professor Abraham Kaplan, a philosopher, has on this something interesting to say.

The image of life I like to have is of an unaging psyche with an aging soma. The soma will age as part of natural processes which only fantasies can deny. But there is something ageless in the psyche—in our occasional glimpses of truth, in our visions of beauty, in the depths of our commitments to moral ideas and in the deep fulfillments of our giving and receiving love. In all these things there is something by virtue of which man is not merely an animal caught up in the process of generation and decay. He is also the locus of something eternal. And it is this which is the most significant part of what makes us human beings.

The tone of this passage is perhaps a little sweet for some palates; and there is nothing intellectually compelling about it nor is it a clanging affirmation of a religious hope. It contains an the same a hint of something that a steady look at life can’t avoid. Perhaps in the sweetness of its tone it avoids the full terror of death. For it isn’t true that I am just my psyche. Anima mea non est ego (I am not just my soul), said Aquinas rather bleakly in his discussion of the connection between soul and body. Something terrible occurs at death: I am no more, for I am what can be pointed to, embraced and killed. If I am to live again it can’t just be as a psyche, for under such conditions, as the Greeks knew so well, even to be king among the dead offers no consolation.

For most men such considerations make the hypothesis of survival impossibly difficult. If it were easy, if dying were like going to the mountains in the hot weather, death would not be terrible. On the contrary hypothesis, that to die is to become nothing, death can’t be terrible either, for there was a time when I was not, and this doesn’t shake the mind—does it? But death is terrible with a sacred terror that is simply a datum of the human condition; and for the dying and the dead there is a reverence that belongs to natural piety, just as there is a reverence of a like kind for human sexuality. If we were to come to find such reverence a clog upon our freedom, something that doesn’t go with intellectual enlightenment, we had better look forward to a society in which the bodies of the dead are put out with the garbage. Would there then be an Antigone to confront the sanitary regulations? As Blake might have put it, if Antigone were not to appear the sun would go out.

This Issue

October 31, 1974