Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/May 1879/Correspondence



To the Editors of the Popular Science Monthly.

AN interesting article entitled "The Fear of Death" appeared in "The Popular Science Monthly Supplement" for December. The author in one place says: "At any rate the feelings with which we contemplate the termination of our own earthly life must vary indefinitely in different individuals, and in the same individual at different times; and it would be a matter of deep interest to compare our respective experience if we could bring ourselves to do so." Having been myself quite recently very near to the entrance of the "valley," and having been for a long time in the daily habit of mentally viewing the question of the extinction of life, it has occurred to me that, where the subject is one in which we all have an interest more or less, even my small experience may be in some degree useful and suggestive.

When quite young, too young in fact to have any definite idea of what death means, I had an extreme dread of the very thought. At the age of six years I stood for the first time in the presence of death, having been brought into the room to see the body of a deceased lady who had been very kind to me. I was awe-stricken. I could not imagine what had occurred. I was told in a subdued voice that she was dead. I did not understand it; I only saw that some terrible and to me inexplicable change had taken place in my friend, and for a long time afterward the mention of death filled me with childish horror. The thought that I too should one day be like that was unbearable.

In early manhood I had a reluctance to think on the subject of death at all, and whenever the repulsive idea presented itself I dismissed it as quickly as possible.

On one occasion, when about twenty-one years old, I accompanied, merely as a spectator, a military expedition against the Tapping rebels in China. During the space of an hour or so I found myself under fire, and, being a novice in the business of war, I felt decidedly uncomfortable. If freedom from apprehension of personal danger constitutes bravery upon such occasions, then I was not by any means brave. But during the whole time I was not conscious of any anxiety as to death or what may follow it; my chief thought was: "If I am hit, what will be the sensation? will it be very painful?" The paramount solicitude was for my body, and if my general anxiety included any other elements than the fear of pain, certainly that was the predominating one. Being only a looker-on, and having no active duties to occupy my mind, I remember distinctly my feelings upon that occasion.

Again, later on in life, I was caught in a heavy blow one night on our Southern coast. The vessel, a small schooner, was in ballast, and we were drifting rapidly to leeward toward the shoals which line the part of the coast where we were; we missed them by the merest chance.

All through that night the thought of death was present in my mind, my anxiety increasing with every cast of the lead, which showed the constantly lessening depth of water. Yet here, again, the fear of the manner of death was stronger than the fear of death itself. Of course, there were feelings of sadness connected with the thought of being cut suddenly off from relatives and friends, but still the chief apprehension was concerning the hopeless and seemingly inevitable struggle in the breakers before death should supervene.

As I approached middle age, the subject of death and what may possibly succeed it began to form more and more a part of my studies and to occupy more constantly my thoughts. The difficulties in the way of an unquestioning belief in a future state of existence beyond the grave increased the more the subject was studied, but the fear of death was if anything lessened. I was told that sickness and the approach of death would alter my views in that respect, and at last I began myself to have a curiosity to learn whether such a result would really follow upon the loss of health.

Not long ago I had a very severe illness, from which I have not yet quite recovered, and perhaps never shall. For a time my chances of life were very small, and I realized my condition perfectly; yet, the nearer Death approached, the less grim and repulsive he appeared. The principal feeling was one of resignation, or perhaps some would prefer to call it apathy. There was, however, always present with the idea of death a certain curiosity as to how the change would be effected, and what it would be followed by—whether by annihilation of all sensation, or by an extension of consciousness of identity with a higher development of faculties and perceptions. While the latter conception was the more pleasing, truth compels me to say that the former appeared to be the more probable.

The difficulty of making a mental presentment of a state of conscious identity apart from the body and brain seemed insuperable, and to believe sincerely and without a doubt that which is inconceivable is, at least in my own case, impossible.

Doubts regarding the question of immortality gave me no concern as to consequences. Those doubts are honest, and I can not prevent them. I was and am convinced that if what I was taught in my youth concerning God and a future life be true, an All-wise and All-just Supreme Being can not condemn me for believing according to the best light of the intellect which he himself gave me; while, if the doctrine of immortality be false, then of course death ends all. In either case there is no cause for uneasiness. Since my partial return to health, the wish to live has strengthened; in fact, now that I am able to attend to my daily business, the state of my health gives me more concern than it did at a time when I was too weak to walk across the floor. On the whole, I think that the fear of, or rather the repugnance to death, varies directly with the vicissitudes of health—strongly developed in robust health, decreasing gradually as death draws nearer. It is well that it is so.J. J. F.

New York, December 22, 1878.


To the Editors of the Popular Science Monthly.

I had the good fortune during the past summer to witness a remarkable display of reason, or something quite akin to reason, in an earthworm. I was watching a number of them in my garden after a shower, as they swallowed bits of dry grass and leaves, when I observed one of very large size take hold of a stick about six inches long. He took hold as he reached it, by the middle, and drew it toward his hole. But as the dirt was heaped up near the hole, the stick soon became bedded about an inch, and then resisted the persistent efforts of the worm to draw it farther. He then deliberately let go of the middle and felt along to the end of the stick, which he seized and drew easily to his retreat. I watched until it had partially disappeared in the hole, but was unable to determine the special value of the prize. It is likely that he desired to feed on the decayed bark of the stick, as I have observed that these worms almost invariably eat dried food instead of green.

By the way, have you ever had your attention drawn to the circulation of the Caladium esculentum? You will observe at the tip of a thrifty-growing leaf, on the upper side, a small hole, in which you can insert the point of a pin. Now water the plant abundantly, and shortly you will observe a small globule of water leap out of this hole. Nine of these combine to make a drop, which falls off and is replaced by another. In a short time quite a pool of water will be found under the plant.

E. P. Powell.
Clinton, New York, January 20, 1879.