The Denial of Death and the Disruption of Culture

The Denial of Death and the Disruption of Culture May 17, 2020

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”

Image by Peter Kraayvanger from Pixabay

Ernest Becker wrote these words in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, published in 1973, just a year before he died of cancer.

žThere are many ways that COVID-19 has exposed the underbelly of our society. It has also brought the often otherwise repressed anxiety of death–the always lurking but so well-hidden fear of human mortality–to the surface.

The only real news story right now is the Coronavirus. Everything else is a related story. The COVID-19 confirmed case and death ticker is constantly in front of us.

We are living, culturally, with a constant conversation about and a consistent consciousness about death. The awareness of our finitude and inevitable death, or what terror management theorists call “mortality salience,” is pervasive and surface-level. Death-reminders are everywhere.

But it’s not just physical, human death on our minds and hearts. Institutions are dying and others are in mortal danger.

We’ve already seen the shutdown, presumably temporary, of major professional and collegiate sports events and seasons (March Madness, NBA, NHL). We wonder about the MLB, the NFL, and collegiate football in the fall. Schools are online and some colleges are announcing complete closures or major cuts to programs. My Facebook feed includes a steady trickle of news announcements from restaurants and other business about closures or imminent closures. One wonders how many churches will close in coming weeks and months.

These disruptions to our cultural institutions have major impacts on many people’s livelihoods and lifestyles. But they also have tremendous impacts on our cultural way of life.

Becker theorized that culture is, at least in large part, the social (and symbolic) product of the human quest for meaning, for significance, for what he called self-esteem, or “a basic sense of self-worth” (Denial, 3).

žHuman beings maintain our self-esteem through participation in and contributions to culture–in so doing we master our anxiety about death. We participate in “heroism” by producing cultural artifacts and contributing to the larger social structure. He writes,

The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. (Denial, 4)

žWe search for meaning, for significance, through engagement with culture. And this achievement of meaning has the effect of transcending our deeper, non-conscious fears that stem from our frailty in the world and the inevitable end-point of our human lives.


But what happens when our cultural systems and institutions are completely disrupted? Upended? Drastically halted? The mechanisms for meaning are disrupted, too, and we feel their effects.

On the positive side, this provides and opportunity to reconsider how we want those symbolic social structures– that “structure of statuses and roles” and  “customs and rules for behaviors” — to look and work when we come out on the other side.  Everything will be changed, and perhaps much of it should be.

It’s also a good opportunity to reflect upon our self-understanding as a human species. How do we want to live and be with each other? How do we want to live and be with the other species with whom we live? With the planet? Where do we really want to locate our sense of meaning and significance?

This prolonged and profound reckoning with our frailty, our vulnerability, could have some positive and long-lasting impact on our future–if we let it.

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