Death: the Biggest Taboo

Taboo breaking has become one of today’s society’s chief characteristics. Although it is not advancing at the same rate throughout the world, there is, undoubtedly, a general worldwide trend towards discussing all what was once held as taboo: gender inequality, religion, sexual preference, premarital sex, abortion, drugs, masturbation, pornography, interracial and interfaith relationships, mental health… the list goes on. There seems to be no opportunity for taboo breaking that we miss, be it on talk shows, on social media, in movies, or in one-on-one conversations. Yet, it distresses me that one topic remains the biggest taboo in our lives: death.

I admit that there has been some progress in the “death discussion”, namely when it comes to religion, suicide, and nihilistic sarcasm on social media. I will argue that death is still a taboo when discussed by religions or in the context of mental health, and I will leave my view on the nihilistic hype till the end of this small article.

To start, I would like to make it clear that by death I mean our own death, the death of our beloved ones, the process of aging and seeing ourselves close to the end, and inexistence itself, which we usually repress thinking about. And if there is one thing all psychology theories agree on, it is that repression is not healthy. Whenever we try to deviate from a topic being discussed or try to distract ourselves from a random thought, we are guilty of repression. This seems to be the general attitude towards death.

Until science offers an alternative, we will age, see our bodies deteriorate, have wrinkled faces, become sexually impotent, need help showering or defecating, and eventually stop existing. There is no scientific proof of any other fate awaiting us. It is a hard to accept fact; that’s why we spend our lives fighting anything that reminds us of our inevitable doom.

Aside from changing the topic when it is about death, we do the impossible to look young; we conceal our age; we pursue big achievements in hopes of being remembered after death; we name our kids after our mothers and fathers in a childish act of death denial; we feel triumph when we see our newborns carrying our features as if we will live through them; we use euphemisms and call death “passing away” like we managed to cheat it somehow; we change the channel when a doctor is talking about the effects of smoking when we are in the middle of our cigarette; we even create religions to ensure that we will never stop existing.

Nearly all we do is an act of death denial. Many psychologists, philosophers and thinkers discussed death denial (Ernest Becker, Otto Rank, Irvin Yalom, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Heidegger, Nietzsche…) and considered it to be one of the main drives in our psyche and life. Many believe that the first function of religions was to offer solace for our awaited inexistence and that it is still the main function.

Religions around the world discuss death either as a tool of fear to remind followers of the importance of abiding by dogmas, or as an elaboration on what lies “on the other side” (be it the literal existence of heaven, reincarnation, or Samsara, or the concept of becoming one with the world and living through it). In fact, the way religions tackle the matter of death is the definition of psychological repression: directing the desires towards pleasure while denying the unconscious fear or desire. Thus, any discussion of death in the context of religion is not a remedy for our concerns; indeed, it is the product.

Some might argue that we have made great progress in mental health awareness and managed to remove stigma from death and suicidal thinking to make it a topic easily discussed. To an extent, that claim might be true; yet, I think an underlying subtle problem persists. First of all, although the awareness campaigns have made great efforts and achieved a lot, many therapists still treat the subject with delicacy—they would comfortably ask you about your sexual fantasies with your parents, but stutter before asking if you ever think about death. Though therapists should ask freely about sexual fantasies, they should also do so when it comes to suicidal thoughts. I cannot understand why the topic of death brings such distress, knowing that it is the most common issue.

Second, and most importantly, I think that this awareness has helped many open up about the subject of suicidal thoughts to their therapists or friends and families, but it did a terrible job by stigmatizing death itself. While this might come as a shock at first, I ask readers to consider death in an analogy with sex. Awareness about sexual fantasies does not aim at talking about sex while considering every fantasy a perversion that needs treatment. On the contrary, it aims at looking at sexual fantasies and preferences as a part of us that needs to be embraced, unless it causes harm to someone.

That is what awareness campaigns about suicide utterly failed to achieve. Although they were successful in helping many who needed therapy, they labeled many more as patients when I don’t think they are.

Death, like sex, is natural. I believe thinking about death is healthy, just like thinking about sex and embracing sexuality. Death will happen to all of us. We will either deteriorate slowly or die unexpectedly; so I have to ask, why is pondering our fate considered unhealthy? Nearly every answer I was ever given to that question stems from our fear of death.

I believe that, in some measure, thinking about death is part of our growth as individuals. Of course, I don’t mean that suicidal thoughts are normal and ought to be untreated; if anyone is having constant suicidal thoughts, they should, by all means, consider therapy or medication. Yet, just like we are taught to accept our flaws and learn from our mistakes, and just like we are taught to embrace our sexual preferences and not be ashamed of them, I think we should be taught to accept our finite existence in order to make the best use of it.

Finally, while life philosophies of “carpe diem” (philosophies that advocate ignoring the future) flourish, we can see a social media hype of existential and nihilistic sarcasm. Oscar Wilde said one of the truest pieces of wisdom: “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, history would have been different.” Just like Wilde and Albert Camus, I believe that the only “act of rebellion” in this world is mocking its doom. Thus, I find that approaches such as nihilistic sarcasm, if nourished in sensible ways, can carry the seed of a balanced and healthy lifestyle that embraces the present without overlooking the end.

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An electro-mechanical engineer, in love with science, philosophy, and literature.
Blunt, meticulous, an animal lover, and an avid reader.