This mortal coil

I never contemplated death before but now I think about it constantly. Why am I afraid to die?

Published July 6, 2004 7:49PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm 22 years old, married, and I'm all of a sudden horribly scared of dying. A few months ago, my husband and I were taking a weekend trip to a nearby city, something we've done many times before. I was looking out of the car window on a familiar stretch of highway and was suddenly struck with the thought that there will be a time when this will end. I won't be with my husband. I won't be traveling on this stretch of highway I know so well. I simply won't exist on this earth. At first I couldn't wrap my mind around it, because taking a weekend trip up to the city with my husband seemed so natural that I felt like it was something I would do forever. I had discussed death before, but it was like I had never really seriously thought about it.

I suspect part of the problem is that I was raised by two very different people (who are still married). My dad is a Lutheran, my mom is an atheist, and neither had very much influence over my spiritual upbringing as a child. My mom did encourage me to be a free thinker and I feel that religion is the cause of a lot of problems in our world. I think it may be too easy for people to get away with inexcusable behavior under the guise of their religion. A lot of the stories that make up the world's most popular religions seem like fairy tales. I firmly believe that you should be the best person you can be to yourself and to others while you are on earth. To do that, I do not need to follow a religion.

The community I have lived in my entire life is very conservative, and religion affects almost every aspect of daily life. People here tend to be sheeplike, and they don't think outside of the box. Since the way I feel causes me to be a definite minority (save for my husband, who feels the same way I do), I've learned to keep my feelings to myself and not think about religion at all. Because of that, I think I've missed out on contemplating death.

Now I think about it constantly. I think about dying, and it literally takes my breath away. I can't imagine not being able to wake up next to my husband, in our house, with our dogs. I can't imagine not calling my mom and visiting my sister. I can't imagine not existing in this body. I can't imagine not being able to think and contemplate with my brain. All of a sudden this life seems way too short. Any time I try to imagine what may lie on the other side, my mind goes completely blank, which gives me the idea that maybe nothing happens and we literally cease to exist. That idea scares the crap out of me. I then try to imagine a heaven, or an alternate realm of some sort, and once again I'm in the middle of a fairy tale that I think is ludicrous.

Do you think I'm panicking because I don't follow a religion that dictates what will happen once you die? I'm not scared I will go to hell, because I don't believe in the Christian version of hell. What do other people in my situation believe about life after death? What do you believe? And what can I do to develop my own ideas about what happens after I die?

Why Am I Scared to Die?

Dear Scared,

What a wonderful letter. You manage to spell out pretty much the whole Western dilemma in one short and rather agitated note. And you do it as though it were a scene in an Antonioni movie.

What is it about people who haven't really thought much about death that, once it hits them, they see it with such blinding clarity? Suddenly, looking out the window of a car, it comes to you! One day you will not be here! You say you cannot imagine these things, and yet you imagine them in detail -- not waking up in the house with the husband and the dogs, the exact negation of what you now take for existence.

What you mean when you say you cannot imagine it, I suspect, is that imagining it is deeply unsettling. Of course. Yet when you are absent you will not be troubled by your own absence, because you will be absent. They may call your name in class, but you won't have to raise your hand. Someone will give the teacher a note, and she will sadly shake her head and mark you off the list. But I doubt that you will miss the class, or anything terrestrial, really. Everything will be completely different, and you'll be mildly surprised you were ever afraid.

As Publius Syrus said in the first century B.C., "The fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself." It is a sentiment Shakespeare took up later in "Measure for Measure," where he has Isabella say to her brother, the imprisoned Claudio,

... Darest thou die?
The sense of death is most in apprehension,
and the poor beetle, that we tread upon,
In corporal sufferance finds a pang as great
As when a giant dies.

To which Claudio replies,

Why give you me this shame?
Think you I can a resolution fetch
From flowery tenderness? If I must die,
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms.

Act III, Scene 1 of "Measure for Measure" is an amazing piece of writing. Shakespeare's language is enough to make death itself cower in a corner. Perhaps if you simply read that scene, you would be sufficiently dazzled, shaken and elevated by the majesty of such towering speech that when death rose to haunt you, you could fling those bristling, ancient words back at it, like weapons against eternity. That is perhaps as they were intended -- as words to fix the darkness in a shimmer of eloquent refusal.

So we master fear of death in a thousand ways, through experience and familiarity, through contemplation, through sudden insight, through faith, and by finding art of sufficient power to momentarily erase the darkness.

I wish I were a scholar but I'm not. I use Bartlett's, and the Web. The only book that comes to mind with death in the title that has profoundly influenced me was "Denial of Death" by Ernest Becker. And, to be frank, I don't even remember why it influenced me so much. I guess it forced me to recognize that death is a constant pressure in life, and it caused me to enumerate the many specific, tangible ways the knowledge of death shapes every action and thought; thus it forced me to honor death.

Perhaps in the SYA forum on Table Talk we could list our favorite books on death. I'm sure many readers have some good ones to suggest.

And while we're at it, just because we can, just because it's such amazing writing, let's quote Shakespeare at length. Here is the remarkable speech of Duke Vincentio to Claudio in that same prison scene in "Measure for Measure":

Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,
Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death's fool;
For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not noble;
For all the accommodations that thou bear'st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou'rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,
And what thou hast, forget'st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear's thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.

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