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Featuring Vice President of the EBF and Professor of Social Work, Daniel Liechty
Veneration of the Dead and Dying
Observing how quickly attitudes changed toward Senator John McCain after his terminal diagnosis became public, why it is that we seem to venerate or defer to those who are dead or dying?
Good observation and good question. As Ernest Becker reminded us, we humans have a unique psychological and emotional relationship with death. We are not unique in the fact that we will die – we share that with all living things. But we are unique in that we are the only living things (as far as we can tell anyway) that have the mental capacity to understand our mortal condition. From somewhere between about 4 and 8 years old, every normally developing human being has carried with them, mostly stuffed way into the back of their minds, the knowledge that “I certainly will die at some point.” This potentially immobilizing knowledge is what creates our unique psychological and emotional relationship with death.
With this in mind, a couple of quick points might speak to the question at hand. The first one is that when we are in the presence of one who is dying or a funeral corpse, this tends to bring to the fore of our conscious mind all of the many fears, of the mysteries, and of the strange and unknown qualities of death we have carried with us for much of our childhood, and all of our adult lives. A natural reaction is a somewhat stunned silence and reverential deference. This person is undergoing or has undergone that which I will face myself one day and has haunted my imagination all these years. We “don’t speak ill of the dead.” It reminds me of the attitude I had, as a new doctoral student, toward one who had just successfully completed particularly grueling oral examinations! No matter what sort of scumbag that fellow had been previously, at least in that moment I held him in deferential respect. You can probably think up a better analogy for yourself.
The second point is that we especially honor, appreciate and defer to those who are handling their terminal diagnosis or on through to their death with something like stoic dignity. It underlines that notion that life has meaning (death is bad enough, but meaningless death is even worse!) Furthermore, it fills me with a sense that when I face that final firing squad, I also may be able to do so without collapse or blindfold, but in true Walter Mitty fashion, will toss that last cigarette to the wind and look my executioner directly in the eyes! When you think about it, one of the most common characteristics of our mythic and historical heroes is that they in some way looked death straight in the eye and survived to tell the tale. It is even better if they faced death not just for their own personal glory, but for the good of others. They “died to save others.” This is the protean narrative that again upholds the valor and meaning of life in the face of death. This raises the tale of a random misstep on a land mine in a senseless war into one of serving with the “ultimate sacrifice” to preserve and extend Democracy and Freedom.
We could go on with numerous other points and illustrations, but I hope this suffices to underline the veracity of the notion that at least a large portion of the reverence and deference with which we treat those who are dying or have died reflects our own special psychological and emotional relationship with death, as well as our need to ameliorate the anxiety awareness of mortality provokes within us.