We live in a death-avoidant culture. We have moved the dying from the home to nursing home or hospital, out of the paths of everyday life, and we send the dead to the antiseptic environs of the funeral home. We can view an embalmed corpse without the noxious experience of decay, and the embalmed can look more alive than the living. As Candi Cann puts it in her Virtual Afterlives, “Dead bodies are no longer part of our lives unless they seem like the living.” No coffin can prevent the corpse from acting like a corpse—from decaying—but we make the final futile gesture of sealing the dead in useless, very expensive, coffins.
What Philippe Aries called “forbidden death” is a recent development. During the medieval period, death didn’t arrive as a shocking surprise. Literary heroes and saints had premonitions of their deaths, and death took place in social settings. Aries claimed that the dying controlled their own deaths, calling for the priest and asking to see family members to say goodbye. The contemporary “banishment” of death contradicts the normal practices of millennia.
Those signs of necrophobia are only a part of our story. Our death-avoidance is oddly mixed with various expressions of necrophilia. Our fascination, love, and embrace of death takes various forms.
The American theologian R.J. Rushdoony gave Freud’s death drive a theological twist in his analysis of modern “politics of guilt and pity.” Being sinners, all human beings have a fundamental awareness that we are guilty and deserve punishment. If we don’t accept the cross of Jesus as a solution to our guilt, we will seek other solutions. We’ll scapegoat others, or engage in self-destructive self-atonement.
Under the burden of real guilt, people are susceptible to the manipulations of false guilt. As Rushdoony put it, “The political cultivation of guilt is a central means to power, for guilty men are slaves; their conscience is in bondage, and hence they are easily made objects of control. Guilt is thus systematically taught for purposes of control.” Pity is twisted into self-destructive masochism. Our politics of guilt and pity expresses our desire for death, our haunting sense that, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, we deserve temporal and eternal punishment. Not believing in a God who punishes or atones, we need to take both punishment and atonement into our own hands.Necrophilia is a common theme of romantic and post-romantic literature. Thomas Mann knew his aesthetes, and saw the deep connection between the romantic temperament and obsession with death. Aschenbach, the protagonist of Death in Venice, is fascinated by the sea because it holds the promise of utter silence and absorption, a unity with some all-encompassing something, a communion with the All that is indistinguishable from death. Lacking a hope for rest in God, he hoped for a repose in the nothingness of death: “To repose in perfection is the desire of all those who strive for excellence, and is not nothingness a form of perfection.”
More generally and abstractly, Catherine Pickstock has argued that the love of death is foundational to modern thought, beginning with Descartes. The Cartesian ambition to formulate philosophy as cleanly as geometry, the drive to isolate essences by stripping away all their temporary and temporal features, is ultimately a desire for death. Objects, once objectified, are unchanging, static, inert, dead. Our science betrays the same impulse. As Rosenstock-Huessy put it, we’ve very good at studying dead things, not so good at studying living beings.
Pickstock thinks our necrophobia itself expresses our necrophilia. Death is part of life; transition from one state to another is characteristic of all living things. Snakes shed their skins, and so do we, literally and metaphorically. When we shove death out of sight into the hospital or funeral home, we deny the death-and-life structure that is inherent in life itself. With death hidden away, we are left with a society that doesn’t acknowledge transition or change, a deathless stasis that is indistinguishable from death itself.
We have abandoned the living God, and are inclined to embrace His opposite. Let Lady Wisdom have the last word: All those who hate me love death (Proverbs 8).