An anthropologist reflects:
Death do us part

In the second in a series of guest contributions, social anthropologist Eveliina Kuitunen explores the theory of death denial

Amidst anthropological and sociological arguments about whether denial is an accurate portrait of attitudes towards death in the West or not, the question of what it is exactly that is being denied remains largely undiscussed. Proponents of the so-called Terror Management Theory (TMT) suggest that to understand or accept one’s own death would be anathema to the continuation of human life, and that human culture is an immortality project built up against an absence that cannot be acknowledged. But who doesn’t know they’re going to die?

Of all the reductions of TMT and insistences of the “death taboo” in “our society”, I think the most unfair is the assertion that the fear of death (or denial) is individualistic and ultimately self-reflexive. For example, it is alleged that the sight of a dead body is terrifying because it reminds us of our own fate. By contrast, though the death awareness groups I study tend to assert their secularity, I take many of the events they hold to be similar to Durkheim’s description of religion in that they tend to express moral cohesion within a society more than the fears or imaginings of individuals.

TMT describes individuals in psychological studies identifying with ingroups or idealistic communities (eg. nationalist groups) more vehemently when they are reminded of their mortality first, purportedly in hopes of “surviving” death by association with something that outlives them. But why take this attachment to mean a bid for immortality? Why not interpret this as subjects responding to the realisation that they will be separated from others. Why is this fear taken to be fear of dying, rather than as a less abstract bristling against loneliness? A reminder of mortality may also be a message about impending weakness, vulnerability, or segregation from quotidian sociality often associated with active dying. Why not take the exhibited desire for a fortified social group to be the construction of a stronghold, an assurance against abandonment in incapacitation? Those eager to keep the theory upright might say that this, by extension, is a denial of the fact that death is a definitive goodbye, or they might subsume social death into death proper. But must wanting to be remembered be conflated with wanting to live forever?

Posted: 18th September 2019

Categories: Reflections