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Is Death a Taboo Subject?
Part 4 in our four-part series on life and death
Reading time: 9 min.
The answer: In a way.
In a sense, death has to be a taboo subject. How else to maintain the contradiction most of us live: “the mortality paradox.” Philosopher Stephen Cave was the first to coin the term, which describes the fragile understanding that we could die at any moment, yet we still plan for the future as if we won’t. Cave writes that it’s a way to believe that death is “both inevitable and impossible.” Sure, it might happen this afternoon, but let’s still make dinner plans.
Cave and others claim that we’re the only sentient beings that live in the paradox of being able to imagine our own deaths yet still go on. The idea that animals are spared an awareness of death is based on conclusions made by the father-of-death-denial Ernest Becker in the 1970s. But recent studies show that chimps care for other chimps when they’re dying. They avoid the spot where the death happened and sometimes hold vigils for the dead. Elephants show upset when another elephant dies. Crows and ravens won’t eat dead crows or ravens but will eat just about anything else. None of this proves that animals understand death, but it questions Becker’s and Cave’s ideas.
The mortality paradox demands that we keep death at a distance, but this wasn’t always the case. During the Middle Ages, death was something to accept as a standard, boring part of life. The Romantic poets and novelists in the nineteenth century glorified death. With World War I and World War II came the belief that an understanding of death was fundamental to man’s understanding of himself.
During the twentieth century, death became a biomedical event removed from daily life. With the proliferation of hospitals and nursing homes, aging and death started to occur behind sterile walls instead of in the home where it was witnessed and experienced. Dying in a medical facility was normalized. Care for a loved one’s remains took place in funeral homes. As a result, it’s relatively acceptable to talk about other people’s deaths in public but not our own.
But as with any taboo subject, death has also become a source of fascination. The media exploits death, reporting on the most gruesome incidents. The details of celebrity deaths flood social media and go viral. On television and in film, death is sensationalized. “Thanatological entertainment,” as it’s called, presents viewers with the most violent forms of death. TV characters rarely die the way most Americans will—i.e., due to protracted illnesses, like heart disease and cancer, in old age; TV characters are shot, stabbed, or end their own lives. (“Game of Thrones” has been credited for helping to incite the Americans’ fascination with death, particularly violent deaths.) Movies portray pandemics and fatal illnesses, natural disasters and near-death experiences. Slasher and zombie movies are blockbuster hits. Americans listen to true crime podcasts. There’s a board game called Serial Killer. “Dark tourism” draws people to the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot, and the house where Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were murdered. Morticians, such as Caitlin Doughty, have millions of subscribers on YouTube to answer questions from viewers about what happens to our bodies in the mortuary.
Some Buddhist monks engage in a meditation called the cemetery contemplations. Nava Sīvathika, or Nine Cemetery Contemplations, comes from the Sattipatana Sutta. In the Buddha’s time (or at one time, depending on if you think of the Buddha as the historical figure Siddhartha Gautama, an actual man, after which a kitten might be named, which not all Buddhists do), monks practiced this meditation while living in a cemetery.
The vipassana death-awareness practice, the Marana Sati, is lengthy. During it, a person contemplates the decomposition of a body (the person’s body) above ground, step by step. Meditators acknowledge that each stage of the body’s composition will happen to them:
Stage 1: After a couple of days, your corpse becomes swollen and releases fluids—stomach distended, lips bloated, face distorted, cracking skin. Unless someone (e.g., your undertaker) has sewed your mouth shut, pus oozing eyes and mouth.
Stage 2: Animals come. Your flesh is poked and pecked and pulled apart by crows. Dogs rip apart your flesh to get at your intestines, which they do, twisting and tearing at it until your body is ravaged.
Stage 3: Your flesh is scattered, and all that’s left on your bones are tendons and some blood.
Stages 4 and 5: Your flesh, the blood, and the pus are gone.
Stage 6: Your scattered bones are strewn everywhere.
Stage 7: Your bones turn white.
Stage 8: Somehow (this isn’t clear), the bones end up in a heap. You can’t tell the difference between your femur and your skull.
Stage 9: Your bones disintegrate into a white powder that seeps into the earth and becomes soil. Your body is gone.
The idea is that this death-awareness practice leads to liberation. Death is inevitable, happens to everyone, is short, comes unexpectedly, and requires us to enter alone. Accepting the reality of our deaths stops experiencing negative emotions like jealousy, anger, and depression. We achieve tadi, detachment in the face of both suffering and health, those who love and hate us, fame and disgrace, loss and gain. Knowing that death isn’t pretty, we accept that life isn’t a fairy tale. Understanding that we won’t live forever, we’re saved from pettiness. We stop coveting material possessions. Our values become more apparent and easier to adhere to. (Note: Corpse contemplation isn’t recommended for the average person.)
Of course, contemplating death, in general, is different from contemplating one’s own death. Research has shown that we may not be able to fully imagine our own deaths, which would mean that (much to my chagrin) Freud was actually right about something. Neurologically, we’re simply not wired not to do it. When we overthink our inevitable demise, the brain enacts a death-denial response to protect us. In one study, subjects were shown photos of themselves coupled with words about death. The predictive center of the brain, which is responsible for imagining the future, shuts down. We can imagine other people’s deaths but not our own. The predictive center of the brain didn’t shut down when subjects were shown photos of other people alongside death-related words.
Ultimately, death is only taboo if you need the mortality paradox. As someone with a healthy fear of death, who’s happy to kind of acknowledge that I could be struck by a car while crossing the street on my morning walk yet still plan to roast vegetables for dinner, it’s hard to understand people’s fascination with death. Why would we want to live in the absence of what is?
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