Friday, October 20, 2006


Having gone more or less through a fascination with death and dying some twenty or thirty years ago the subject is seen today in a very different light. In those days there was an upsurge of such works in the literature, especially in sociological and psychological annals, and there are several volumes that once were devoured avidly, but remain dust-bound on my shelves these days. I wrote a little myself, attended workshops of the currently famous authorities on the subject and even wove them into my clinical orientation. But it seems to me, like so many other faddish issues, even thinking about the topic with its stages of loss and separation, have simply withered away both in the literature and in thought.

For that reason I was surprised to note that at this more advanced stage of my life the subject began to enter into idle musings without its classic grimness of feelings. That lack of mourning or odor of “Shakespearean tragedy” is what impressed me most. Indeed it is not unusual, especially in later years, to contemplate and even privately, at least, anguish about ones death or the death of significant others. There is no surprise about such ordinary phenomena; what is surprising to me is that anticipations about ones own death can so often be unaccompanied by commonly associated fear, dread or expectation of radical change. At the same time I am well aware of the tradition common with Christians, (among which I hopefully count myself), that fear of impending death should be conquered and overcome in anticipation of a better life ahead. Even so there are times when all of us, in spite of our faith, can get into an occasional modest frenzy about the process of our own death, its probable course, our conscious fears about pain, lostness, and the often recurring “great unknown”—all the more prevalent of course at certain critical times in life.

At other times, however, I have found myself musing about death in quite another form, say for example of plans to parcel out my meager net savings to my children, imagining that they will think well of me. Or I ruminate over the possibility that one of them will down-load my writings from my word processor, or wherever it is in my computer, and share them with the others “after I’m gone”. Clearly I am basking then in solicited vainglory, not to say outright vanity--no wonder the thoughts are not morbid. But I have even ventured into visions of my own funeral in a calm and curious way. There is also the rather happy thought that those offspring of mine will be enjoying more than adequate finances of their own and may in all probability be too busy with their lives to reminisce on their largely inadequate fathering much at all. Sometimes I experience a deep sorrow and sense of loss about not seeing my children, and children’s children, but I am sure these ruminations are not unusual, especially in these later years; my point in all this is to show that our orientation to death, our own or that of others, commonly represents a dichotomous and disparate set of attitudes. The probability is that some persons or groups, in this world of ours, leans more consistently toward one rather than toward the other end of that dichotomy. Thus there is the tendency on the part of some groups or individuals to place a great deal of value and importance on earthly life, its material wealth or its romantic or emotional pleasures; emphasis is given to this life and all it holds, often to the greater dread, as time goes on, of eventually giving it up. This orientation to life might be termed “hedonistic” or “earth centered” while the other extreme is represented by those who may appear so Heavenly involved that they are seen by some as “no earthly good”, and indeed may give less thought or energy to the “ungodly” issues of everyday living.

It seems to me, among the earth centered, occasionally there are represented certain Christian writings, with emphasis on monetary success and the “good life”, in some way cast in scriptural terms. To be sure, several of these writers tend to address a minority or underprivileged group that has been sorely dealt with in the past; they may include “Women”, who have experienced exploitation or discrimination by men,(such as the glass ceiling), or those parishioners who have felt excluded by more apparently well-to-do, typically white, middle class, church people. Among writers who seem to take a balanced stand between life and death I would count C. S. Lewis of course, and Philip Yancey for another random example. We have to wonder what effects the more extreme attitudes would have on daily life in the “burbs”.

Among people for whom death and dying represent less important issues could be included the non-religious, atheists, and probably those who have never learned a personal moral code, including persons who may actually kill others for their own peculiar needs, and those routinely under the impress of war or civil police services. It is important to most of these more “tough-minded” ones that the issue of death does not impinge in a way that overawes their lives in other respects; their eating, sleeping and relating styles may remain intact. Here also, however, are the antisocial, the insensitive, and the thoughtless and impulsive ones, especially when under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or strong emotions. Most of these people seem able to keep their personal attitudes tenuously to themselves until life experiences push them into reflexive, deadly actions. And of course there are variations within the course of each life that may change one’s attitudinal polarity, (some may eventually hopefully come to Christ). We might expect many so-called criminal types to be at this end, but also some very successful and well-functioning people who are seen by others as self-sufficient “winners”; egocentricity often requires an unsentimental view of fellow humans. But very important to my way of thinking are the individuals representing a wide range of ages who have become preoccupied with, and enamored of, death. They include the Columbine shooters and the man who killed those little Amish school-girls, the ones who are so impressed with controlling the advent of death that they are impelled to “make it happen” rather than wait for it; “suicide by cop” is just one form of controlling one’s death and the death of others. Their fifteen minutes of fame, which they often avidly seek, must frequently be their last memory among the living.

Occupying the other pole may be counted those in denial of death’s importance; as Lord Byron wrote, “And if I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I do not weep”, an attitude that often crumbles under the approach of death itself. But here too are many people so impressed by hell-fire and damnation that, even more than death, they may fear to enjoy anything this life on earth has to offer—though there are Scriptures capable of modifying that attitude in equal profusion. They may perhaps prefer to see their lives continue right on into the great beyond without any temporary hitch. Included at this end of the continuum are those who are so wary of, or repulsed by, the idea of death and dying that they “avoid it like the plague” so to speak, and speak of it they rarely do. Their hope may be that to keep such ideas out of sight and out of mind is not only to avoid death but perhaps to conquer it; for them death will hopefully and finally just slip by un-noticed in the midst of life ongoing.

If there is any purpose in all this it is to demonstrate that persons occupying more extreme ends of the dichotomous range of attitudes towards death are most likely to be strongly antagonistic to each other and oppositional with respect to the other in the course of their social behavior. Included here would be political actions, or lack thereof, social skills development, management of money and buying habits, or consumerism, and more or less concern with just who should, or should not, have nuclear capabilities in this world, to name a few areas of likely variance. The conflict between pro-lifers and those favoring abortion is clearly fierce, and the opposition to any war, Iraqi or otherwise, might be predictable; those who compulsively vote at every election could be seen as oppositional to those who never go to the polls. Certainly the ones who vote for improvements to the lives of the elderly or improvements for future generations would likely be opposed by people who see no value in these issues. There are the famous examples of the careful ones who save up for a rainy day, spending money mostly on non-perishables, and the “party-time”, impulse buyers of quickly used up “good-time” goods; it is the eternal fable of the grasshopper and the ant--moral values proven useful in many modern-day contexts.

With these variables in mind a scalar questionnaire could easily be generated to test the hypothesis that these attitudes toward death and dying really do stand as polar opposites, and to what extent the general population is represented in these terms, and furthermore, what particular characteristics might be found for the different sub-groups. For the initial phase of scale construction both a verbal approach by the investigator utilizing only oral questions needs to be accompanied by an attitude scale filled out by an experimental population. In its final short-form verbally administered questions may be all that is needed to discriminate the sub-groups in terms of keys to more practical applications.

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