Paul asked:

Why are we so scared of death?

Answer by Julian Plumley

Dear Paul, that is a good question, and one that I have not thought about for a long time. I am not sure I can give you a really satisfying answer, but I hope I can make a few points that make sense.

Firstly, there is an empirical question. When people fear death, what exactly are they fearing? It is unlikely to be the same for each and every person. One way to find out would be to interview a representative group of people. (Or maybe a death focus group!) But I don’t have time to do this, so the next best thing is to scan the web and find out what people say when they talk about their fear of death. This is not hard to do – for example, there are several discussion threads in yahoo answers which are very helpful.

The results are fascinating. There are many ways in which people are scared of death. I have tried to pull these into categories, so that we can think about them better. Here they are with some rough notes to get across the feelings associated with each category. (This is not meant to be exhaustive – there are probably more categories I did not find yet.)

Fear of the unknown: death is the ultimate unknown; it is impossible to understand or grasp; fear of the dark, of caves and tunnels; fear of the new, the untested.

Fear of being lost: rootless, with no foundation, no reference.

Fear of separation/ exile/ isolation: death separates me from people and things I like; I have to go, to leave my place; I will be separated from everyone else.

Fear of reality: being found out, revealed; facing up to things I don’t want to.

No control/ deadline: I am not in control; I don’t know when it’s going to happen; there is no defence; I am forced to go; there is no appeal; death is the ultimate deadline; time is up, I can’t change anything anymore; like an exam, or not wanting a holiday to end.

Non-existence: horror at the idea of non-existence; the idea of being gone, forgotten; perspective of our short existence vs. eternity.

The state of being dead: the thought of not being able to breathe is scary; not having any experiences.

What happens next: heaven, hell… oh dear!; not enough faith in afterlife; fear of an afterlife; what will happen to others when I am gone.

Game over: there is no more life; I am going to miss life and things in it, people I love, etc.; I am loving life and I don’t want it to end.

Fear of regret: regret for things left undone and unsaid, for life not well lived; regret for dying early.

Rationalised answers: our instinct for survival makes us fear death; if we did not fear death, we would have died out.

Process of death: fear of painful death; particular kinds of death e.g. drowning.

So what can we make of this? A lot of these categories are basic fears we have while living our lives, but projected onto death: fear of the dark; of being lost; of isolation; of being found out; of being out of control. Other categories are more specific to death itself: fear of non-existence; of how it is to be dead; of what happens next; of the end of the game. The rationalised answers are not fears at all. Lastly, there is the fear of pain before death.

As philosophers, having clarified the facts to some extent, we should ask: is it rational to fear death? Those fears that we project onto death seem to be irrational. We do not have enough information about death to justify them. But most of us know what this kind of fear is like from situations in our lives. It takes an effort of will to suppress these fears, but people can manage to do this.

The fears that are specific to death are more interesting. Probably each of these deserves an essay, so I will just discuss one of them briefly: fear of non-existence. I have seen people try to argue that this is unjustified on the basis that we do not exist before we are born, but that thought is not fearful for us, so there is no reason why the thought of non-existence after death should be scary. Does this argument work?

It doesn’t. I had a vivid counter-example when my daughter (about 7 or 8 at the time) asked me: ‘Where was I before I was born?’ When I told her she wasn’t anywhere, she was horrified. I could see that it was exactly the same fear as that of non-existence after death (which I am acquainted with). There is something peculiarly inexpressible about this fear, which makes it a horrible perspective to experience. Often children ask the best philosophical questions – the ones the adults have forgotten. I don’t think we can rationalise this fear away so easily. Is it a basic part of having a subjective viewpoint, or is it merely a psychological defect?

Fear of pain before death, and of the way we die, is entirely reasonable. We are all acquainted with pain and it is something we justly fear. But this is really a fear we attach to a part of our lives, the final part, not to death itself.

I am painfully aware that this answer is inadequate as it stands – it leaves more questions than answers. For a start, it would benefit from having input from some professionals who are used to dealing with death and with fear: nurses, psychologists and priests, for example. There is a lot more to say about each of these fears and I will keep pondering this. Thank you for raising the question.