This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Denial of Death

Death, and our awareness of it, is a primary motivating force for humans. We will do anything to evade it or psychologically negate its reality. Psychiatrist Ernest Becker (1973) argues in Denial of Death that the fundamental human impulse is to "negate" death through heroism. "The most that any of us can seem to do," he wrote, "is to fashion something-an object or ourselves-and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force." Becker's book may have been such an offering, motivated by his own impending death. He died in 1975 at the age of 49.

Erich Fromm (1954) argued that awareness of death is part of our unique human gift: self-consciousness. Just as we recognize that we live, we recognize that we will die. The only way to overcome the feeling of being a tiny, insignificant atom in the universe is to establish contact with something outside the self through such means as creative activity and love. Thus two prominent psychologists, Becker and Fromm, suggest that awareness of mortality motivates our finest human impulses—heroism, creativity, and love.

What was Becker's thesis in Denial of Death? How did Maslow react to a brush with death?

Abraham Maslow faced death when he suffered a sudden heart attack. He wrote:

The confrontation with death—and the reprieve from it—makes everything look so precious, so sacred, so beautiful, that I feel more strongly than ever the impulse to love it, to embrace it, and to let myself be overwhelmed by it....I wonder if we could love passionately, if ecstasy would be possible at all, if we knew we'd never die. (In Arkoff, 1975)

What did G. Stanley Hall find out about children's fear of death?

Children do not automatically fear death. In 1897, when G. Stanley Hall administered questionnaires to 2,000 people of all ages, asking about attitudes toward death, he concluded that young children have no inborn fear of death. Fear of death was more predominant in the responses of adolescents and adults.

Perhaps many children do not grasp the full implications of death. Childers and Wimmer (1971) found that many children below the age of nine regard death as avoidable or reversible. (My youngest son, when he was 5, asked me if it was true that "dead people don't come back.") Many children take death in stride as a natural process, if they have not learned to fear it.


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