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August 17, 2015 at 8:57 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Facing Death in a Death-Distant Culture

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

My four year old daughter asked me the other day if I was a super hero.  Another one of those questions that you want to answer in an insightful way, but that catch you completely off guard.  I let her know that I would of course fight off any evil people or monsters that tried to hurt her.  I also tried to put together some sort of analogy comparing my work as a doctor, fighting death and disease. As her attention turned quickly to something else I pondered the evil specter of death.  But putting death on a list of enemies or bad guys seemed a fool's errand.

Death always comes and always wins in the end.  In society, we fear death as a specter with such discomfort.  I see this as I sit with famies and discuss living wills and advanced directives.  While we know in our rational minds that we will die, we avoid it like the plague.  Why have we become so uncomfortable with death?

Changing Times

Times sure have changed.  While death in itself has not changed, our distance from it has - literally and figuratively.  Today we enjoy longer, healthier lives in general.  Vaccines and antibiotics have made infectious death a rare occurrence.  Babies are delivered in a hospital under careful monitoring and infant death in America is also a rare occurrence. 

Prior to modern times we had a different relationship with death. Most medieval European statistics place childhood mortality at 30% or more.  Families were even bigger in order to account for this potential loss.  It was a way of life up until the 20th Century.  Further, society was more agrarian.  People often raised or hunted their meat.  They killed it, prepared it and then ate it.  Something as simple as a Sunday dinner involved a tangible death.  Nowadays, we go to the supermarket and purchase meat wrapped in plastic with no representation of the animals from which they came.  Children these days often have no appreciation for the necessary death required for them to eat their chicken nuggets.  When we humans die, it is most often in the hospital, a foreign environment.  In days past, "natural" death or deaths due to illness/infection occurred most frequently in the home.  Processing death via a funeral visitation or wake also happened in the home.  Today, we have comfortable, packaged funeral homes to separate death from everyday life.


Perspective and honesty are the key in relating ourselves with death.  Saying to self, "I will someday die," and "My loved ones will someday die," is an exercise in honesty.  Armor that we have against such certainties, the ability to accept and outline the terms upon which death may find us.  Talk to your loved ones.  Know their wishes and feelings around the topic of death.  Complete an advance directive.  Consider your legacy.  What will you leave behind?  Many faiths believe that death is the transition of the soul, finding comfort.  While death is ultimately an unknown, faith can provide some assurance as to what lies on the other side.  As written so eloquently by John Donne over 400 years ago in his sonnet known as "Death Be Not Proud," "One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, And death shall be no more; Death, thou shall die."

In Sum...

Man of today relates differently to death than our forefathers.  I find this curious given our comparative enlightenment in virtually everything else compared with prior generations.  Because of this discomfort with death, an intense aversion has evolved over communicating and considering the topic in an open light.  I challenge you to fight these tendencies to embrace the inevitable as the last yet unwritten chapter rather than the evil specter.

Live, and live well.

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