Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/December 1897/The Fear of Death



MAN occupies in view of death a situation that is peculiar, for he is probably the only being that knows he has to die. The battle against death spurs an immense number of men to study and work; and all the great intellectual and moral creations in art, religion, and science have been produced under the influence of the feelings excited by the certainty of that event. Yet the psychology of the ideas and emotions relative to death is still to be constructed.

Man is not normally preoccupied with the thought of death. While he is in full vigor of health and strength he is not afraid of it and takes little heed of it. The idea that he will have to die some day rarely enters his mind, and when it does present itself it is so vague and relates to an event so uncertain as to the time when it will occur that no distress is produced by it. This inertia of the thought of death in the strong man follows from the important agency exercised by organic sensations in determining the psychical condition. We know that not only exterior phenomena acting on the sensorial organs that are directed to the outer world produce sensations in us, but changes of condition originating in the organism itself are also accompanied by sensations. The parts of the body that are by their situation withdrawn from the direct influence of external agents possess a special sensitiveness through which we perceive their changes of condition. One of these sensations, for example, is the feeling of fullness after dinner, the sign of an abundance of food in the stomach. The same stomach, empty, gives the painful feeling of hunger. In the field of organic sensibility sharply defined sensations are given only under abnormal conditions resulting from pathological disturbances. In a normal state they are very weak, and escape observation all the more easily because they differ but little in quality and intensity. But, being very numerous and continual, these sensations exercise a great influence over our psychical condition and sometimes indirectly determine the trend of our thoughts and the forms of our feelings. Thus, for example, the vivacity of mental images and ideas often depends on special conditions of organic sensibility. When an image or an idea is in opposition to the preponderant series of organic sensations with which the consciousness is occupied, a conflict takes place in which the image and the idea are nearly always vanquished. It is, for instance, very hard to form a lively conception of the pangs of hunger after having eaten a good meal; for the organic sensations of fullness proceeding from the stomach blunt the fancy of the opposite. It is observable, likewise, that the feeling of pity is often associated with organic weakness, while strong, healthy, and vigorous men are less inclined to it. It is only possible if we are able to realize a lively representation of physical or moral weakness; but men whose entirely healthful and vigorous organization develops feelings of well-being and strength can form only the poorest conceptions of those conditions of feebleness that are in contradiction to the preponderant system of sensations.

These principles explain why the young, well, and vigorous man concerns himself very little about death, although he knows to a certainty that it is inevitable. In a sound body the organs send unprecise and indefinite sensations to the brain, which, however, all together give that feeling of vigor and physical well-being that might be called the general sensation of organic life. According with the psychological phenomenon we have described, this condition of organic sensibility is diametrically opposed to the production of vivid images of death. The thought of death is therefore vague, feeble, and without consistency in the larger number of minds; and it is not competent to call out very strong feelings or excite a terror that will arouse the instincts of preservation that are slumbering in the depths of the consciousness.

The same principle explains why it is that old people generally are the ones who are most afraid of death and do not like to have it spoken of in their presence. Everybody has observed how worried aged persons are and how they protest if sickness or deceased persons are mentioned; that they are extraordinarily pleased when they read in the papers the accounts that are given occasionally of some centenarian living in some remote district; and what extraordinary precautions they take to preserve their health. We might believe that old men are preoccupied with death so much because they feel it near; but other facts demonstrate that the abstract number of probabilities of dying is not an element of the fear of death. Men in some occupations, as sailors or miners, are continually exposed to the danger of death; but they, especially the youth among them, do not take sufficient thought of it to be disturbed or saddened by it. The greater vividness of old men's conceptions of death is most likely a result of the advancing weakness of their organs and physical sensations.

Man has to face not only the abstract thought of death: he often finds himself confronting the real danger of it. What are his conduct and feelings then? A number of curious facts indicate that violent deaths, provided they are not too slow, are easy and free from pain; it might be said that death excites hardly any horror when it comes quickly and without previous announcement; so the confessions of some persons who have escaped the gravest dangers would make us believe. Mr. Wallace has recorded some incidents of this kind in his Darwinism, and says of them that those persons who have escaped from the clutches of a lion or a tiger experienced no physical or moral suffering in their peril. Dr. Livingstone describes his feeling when seized and shaken by a lion as a kind of stupor with no pain or terror, although he was fully conscious of what had happened to him; so a chloroformed subject is able to follow the operation without feeling the instrument. Mr. Whyrnper, when he fell several hundred feet on the Matterhorn, rolling from rock to rock till he alighted on a mass of snow which fortunately held him just clear of the edge of a precipice, although he received a number of contusions, felt no pain and did not lose consciousness, but simply speculated as to the number of tumbles he would still receive before it would be over with.

The questions arise whether the nervous shock occasioned by the accident produces a kind of insensibility which paralyzes, as it were, the feelings of fear and terror, or whether the affair goes on so rapidly that there is no time for the formation of all the complex of images and feelings that culminate in the fear of death. Livingstone's precise observation suggests that there is really a kind of acquired insensibility. His comparison of his condition to that of a subject under the influence of chloroform appears more than probable when we reflect that severe nervous shocks of every kind coming under the form of extremely violent and sudden sensations or emotions produce this sort of hypnotic anæsthesia. It is well known, for example, that if we fall and receive a rude shock we remain for some time unconscious, or at least with a diminished sensibility. The same effect is produced by a sudden affliction, as, for example, a surprise of very bad news; grief does not follow at once, but a kind of insensible stupor with only the most obtuse consciousness of pain and of self. Thus the nervous shock provoked by the tumble over the rocks or by lying helpless under the paw of a wild beast would produce a kind of semi-sensibility, in which the thought of death would present itself just like any other thought without exciting any fear or terror.

Another extremely interesting problem in psychology lies in the study of the thoughts and feelings of the sick with respect to death. Are they preoccupied in the course of their illness with this probable ending? Do they preserve the habitual carelessness of all mankind? What relation exists between the moral character of the patient, between the kind of disease, and the fear of death? I can not fully answer these questions for want of a sufficient number of facts and observations, but will record what I Lave observed without assuming to give it the value of definite conclusions.

I have been much struck by the fact that patients afflicted with chronic and lingering diseases appear careless about death, and even have often an ardent confidence in life and hope to enjoy it long. The phenomenon is especially remarkable in consumptive patients, although they know well enough that science has no remedy for their disease, and only one of those miracles that sometimes are wrought in the organism can save them. Their belief in a near recovery is sometimes so strong that it takes the form of a real hallucination and a delirium. I can say nothing precise about those who suffer from acute diseases. There are those who remain sick, recover, or die without ever saying a word about death or showing any apprehension of it; others, on the contrary, are desperate, mourn their fate, and exhibit in their talk and acts poignant and profound anguish at the prospect of death. Still others manifest a resigned preoccupation and a regret modified by a Stoic recognition of the inevitableness of death. It is impossible now to say what the causes of these differences are; but the question is an interesting one. A most curious phenomenon is the fact that death sometimes loses its horrible character and is contemplated with real pleasure. Few psychological facts seem more strange and astonishing than this. The ancient Brahmanical custom of burning the bodies of widows with their husbands became almost a moral privilege for the women, and to many of them represented the magnificent ending of a beautiful existence. The attempt of the English to eradicate it was met by a strong opposition from the women themselves. A similar custom, though devoid of the religious surroundings, exists in China, where childless widows believe that they die well if they strangle themselves after the interment of their husbands.

Examples of pleasure in death are found, too, in countries of European civilization. It is true that the most remarkable cases of this kind occur among nervously diseased persons; but as their disorders are generally only exaggerations of normal tendencies, the psychological phenomenon is well worthy of attention. Death is sometimes sought as preferable to a threatened separation under the impulse of a strong emotion of love; and instances are cited in which couples have deliberately and elaborately prepared for it as if for a party of pleasure. Persons have been known to invite death, in the expectation of thereby promoting some scheme of vengeance. Savages of certain tribes who have been offended and have no other means of vengeance kill themselves, believing that their spirits will return to torment their enemy. Under the Hindu custom of the Dharma, or fast, men starve themselves to death for the sake of annoying their enemies. So persons of disordered nerves among us, or victims of various passions, commit suicide in order to excite remorse in persons to whom they become antagonistic. Others die to gratify their vanity, and surround their death with conditions that will attract attention or that bear a character of sensational display. A great many suicides would probably never commit the fatal act, no matter how hard the miseries of life might oppress them, if they thought nothing would be said of the matter in the press or in society; while, in fact, a supreme satisfaction attends their departure from life in the anticipation of the talk there will be about it.

Persons in certain classes or occupations are attracted by particular modes of death. Thus death on the battlefield possesses a dazzling glamour for soldiers, in whose conception of it there is no thought of terror.

Death may further be made to appear pleasant through the operation of religious or political fanaticism. Multitudes of men have exposed themselves to the most terrible dangers of death, and multitudes of others have actually suffered it, full of enthusiasm and joy, for an idea, and have given themselves up to destruction for it. Such feelings acquire frightful intensity when they become epidemic and are propagated through a mass of people.

Such cases present a strange perversion of the instincts of self-preservation, which are ordinarily the firmest and strongest of our feelings—a contradiction to the most general laws of life so complete and distinct as to make a search for an explanation for it very desirable.

The explanation, we believe, may be found in the laws of association. Association is capable of changing the psychological value of any object, of rendering agreeable a thing that is offensive to another or under other circumstances, or an action by which others are annoyed or to which they are indifferent; and can give precious value to a recollection, a thought, or an image which would be repulsive to others. Such associations operate with striking force in cases where the passion of love is concerned. Associations connected with a place where one has lived are agreeable or disagreeable according as one has been happy or not there; and the law may extend to objects and images of all kinds, and even to the merest trifles.

By the same law we may account for these exceptional eliminations of the repulsive character from the thought of death. When it is associated with intense passion, with the anticipation of glory and fame, or when the gratification of animosities is the dominant desire, all feelings contradictory of these suffer a total eclipse, and death becomes desirable as a means to obtain what to the passing fancy seems a greater and the supreme end.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.