Fear of Death

It’s only natural that unbelievers and persons indifferent to religion should regret or fear death. Whenever life is the only and absolute good, the absence of life is the ultimate evil. Best not to mention or even to think of it (which is what we largely do in contemporary society), and to delay it as long as possible, by whatever means necessary (such as the destruction of potential life).

But why are persons of faith, good Christians, equally or even more fearful of the end of life? Should they be? Pope John Paul II was asked during his transfer to the hospital for an operation to deal with colon cancer whether he was afraid. He answered simply and clearly – and courageously, in my view: Yes! But truthful as that answer may have been, the question about why we fear death remains mostly unanswered.

There are numerous stories in the early centuries of Christianity and in the Middle Ages of martyred individuals who calmly embraced death yearning for unity with the Divine. We also know many cases in more recent times of people who made highly dignified and brave ends. Still, what we are concerned with here remains the present, the states of mind of those who are around us, and, yes, our own feelings.

Now, I am sure that there must be learned theological answers to these questions. But, alas, neither the homilies we usually hear, nor the essays that we read seem to deal adequately with the issue. And so, a modest amateur may be permitted to offer some personal observations here, four of them, ranging from the pragmatic to the more philosophical.

First. I for one (and I am certainly not the only one) have difficulty merely parting with a pair of old sandals, or a comfortable sweater. And we can’t help sensing how much greater will be the parting from the whole universe: from the grass and flowers, from the houses, the wind, the sea, from all the objects and movements in nature, from the many, many friends, relatives, acquaintances. A million times more? Who can tell? And who can blame anyone for such sentiments?

Second. When we are young or middle-aged, but even later, there is the nagging question of what our demise will mean in terms of failing to fulfill our duties or to reach other goals. This is sometimes misunderstood. We are talking here not only about great poets and composers, scientists and statesmen, but also, and perhaps particularly, about the ordinary pater familias, the loving mother, the responsible entrepreneur. How can they not be afraid of death as an interruption of their deepest engagements as persons? Is this only egotistical sentiment? Is there not also a modicum of genuine concern mixed in with this fear: what will happen in the future without us? What will that future be for people we care about?

Third. Many of us are not so much afraid of the cessation of life, as of the way it might take place. We know only too well from experience that the detachment of soul from body is rarely an easy thing. One of the consequences of Original Sin is that death is much more frequently accompanied by pain and agony. We envy those who breathe their last in a quiet, peaceful , and noble manner. We are terrified by the tortures of cancer, the confusion and decay of our minds, the weakening and disablement of our limbs and organs. What used to be an organic unity “falls to pieces,” the parts gain autonomy, as Auden said writing about the death of Yeats. Few of us have the composure to face this situation in a patient, calm, and dispassionate way.

Fourth. Uncertainty. Perhaps all but the firmest and deepest believers harbor in their hearts at least a tiny doubt as to their final destiny. Will it be total nothingness? Or a step into God’s fullness? And even if it’s the latter, judgment remains – and should remain – a matter of true fear. Dies irae is a term that we often encounter in the Scriptures and tradition. The modern happy talk about the dead being “with God” merely avoids thinking about the big questions: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Our sense of God’s mercy remains tentative, more a matter of hope than faith. And this is as it should be. Certitude about Salvation is sinful presumption.

There are doubtless still other reasons for fear. And perhaps all of them can be better formulated than I have done here. But I wanted at least to open a subject that seems to be habitually, even deliberately, avoided, often now by believers, too – and to suggest that mulling over these questions can be useful, no, indispensable, in approaching one of the most important subjects for human understanding and existence.

Virgil Nemoianu is William J. Byron Distinguished Professor of Literature and Ordinary Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.