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“Remembrance of Death” Can Overcome “Death Obsession”

Crossposted at First Things

I was once approached by a member of the Hemlock Society after I had delivered a speech opposing assisted suicide. She asked me, “Mr. Smith, how do you envision your death?”

I was a bit taken aback. Her whole approach seemed backwards to me. So, I replied, “Ma’am, I’m still trying to envision my life.”

We in the West are often accused of having a “death-denying” culture. But I think the opposite is true. As my long-ago encounter with the Hemlock member illustrates, we are actually — and to an increasing degree — becoming a death-obsessed culture.

Death obsession is corroding our society’s belief in the intrinsic value and inherent dignity of human life. Evidence of this cultural septicity is everywhere: in the rise of hedonistic escapism, in the violence of our popular entertainment, in the media’s embrace of assisted suicide as the next great progressive cause.

Our death obsession even has a darkly humorous side. Some get so caught up in the means of becoming dead that they invent novel methods of doing so. Take as one example the “Euthanasia Rollercoaster”:

The design for Euthanasia Rollercoaster ensures that riders stand no earthly chance of survival. Yet, the ride promises a lethal dose of g-force that suffocates the brain and delivers a thrill of orgasmic pleasure as death approaches, making the experience of dying more meaningful.

We can laugh at the rollercoaster but not, I think, at the dark connection—often presented in movies and television programs—between death and sexual pleasure.

Death obsession has also produced the transhumanist movement. As I have written here, transhumanism is a materialistic quasi-religion that seeks to conquer death by harnessing technology, helping believers to attain immortality, say, by uploading their minds into computers. A vivid illustration of the death obsession driving the movement, transhumanist popularizer Zoltan Istvan just completed a national speaking tour in a bus made to look like a coffin as part of his pseudo campaign for president on the Transhumanist party ticket.

Death obsession is a wail of despair that strives to overcome the enveloping darkness by imposing human control over death. As a recent opinion article about the coming of euthanasia to Canada put it:

[S]ooner or later, death will become a civil servant. He will operate in the open, during business hours, with a budget and a boss. His work will be humanized and bureaucratized. Death will be licensed, regulated and empowered by law to solve a public policy problem—the unacceptability to certain people of certain types of dying. This marks a major shift in the meaning of death, from ineffable human destiny to legislated human right.

But death’s guaranteed visit need not lead to the desolation of obsession. There are far more positive ways of coming to terms with the grim reaper.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, for example and certainly not exclusively, endorses the teachings of pioneering Christian monastics known as the Desert Fathers, who placed great emphasis on living in continual “remembrance of death.” Unlike death obsession, which seeks to control or deflect death, remembrance of death is a metaphysical discipline that transforms the mourning stirred by our certain demise into a positive prayer discipline to help us to live a fuller and more holy life. As described by the Orthodox writer Constantine Malandrakis:

Death should be a constant dimension and quality of any Christian’s life, not just something that befalls him at the last moment. Awareness of death gives to life immediacy and depth, and makes life so intense that its totality is summed up in the present moment. As Christ claimed the victory over death by death, so a Christian defeats death and the fear of death with all of its tragic consequences through a mindfulness of death during his life.

Remembrance of death is so important that it is the sixth step of St. John of the Ladder’s “Ladder of Divine Assent.” He writes, “As of all foods bread is the most essential, so the thought of death is the most necessary of all works.” St. John advised that the “groaning and tears” of a continual remembrance of one’s own death and final judgment were crucial to experiencing true repentance and liberation from worldly cares, essential goals of the monk and nun.

Of course, most of us are not monastics. But in Eastern Orthodoxy, the separation from those called “to the desert” and we who live “in the world” is not as wide as it might seem. My friend, author and preeminent American Orthodox apologist Frederica Matthewes-Green, considers the remembrance of death as one of the most helpful disciplines in living a healthy Christian life. She told me, “If you spend your life seeking entertainment and food, trying to keep your mind occupied and amused, you find yourself weary and depressed. Life can come to seem meaningless.” There is a better way than these desperate efforts to delay, deflect, and control our mortal fate. It is to accept it, to ponder and embrace it, and witness a paradoxical result: “Keeping in the back of your mind an awareness of the fact that you will die one day leads to a life lived deliberately, with forethought and gratitude, a life that is worthy and complete.” She explains:

That awareness has the effect of casting into sharp relief everything you do and every choice you make. It helps you remember how fleeting life is, and how few our days are. It makes you want to spend them carefully, wisely, to live them with full awareness and gratitude. It is “life with dignity,” in the root sense of “dignity” meaning “worth.”

An article of this brevity is inadequate for exploring this most universal and consequential of subjects. But perhaps it can suggest that death obsession need not be our society’s default setting. Instead of fixating on “controlling the time and manner of our death,” or escaping the fact of our death in frivolous or Quixotic pursuits, we can let our sure end be our inspiration to live positive, worthy, and meaningful lives until that time when “there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.