Finally!

Even if the sun is shining in life. Something always turns up to remind you of death. Time to face the fear – our author thought

  • 13.01.2015

At the age of six or seven, on one of those endless childhood Sundays, I saw a puppet show on television. It was about a man who escaped death several times and aged. One day, however, Death – a black cloak without a face – saw through the ruse of the stone-old man and took him into his kingdom. That scared me. How can it be, I thought, that one day one has disappeared so completely? What if it’s all over?

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Finally, an end to repression. Our author wants to try an unbiased view of death (Photo: Tobias Kruse/Ostkreuz)

Finally an end to repression. Our author wants to try an unbiased view of death

(Photo: Tobias Kruse/East Cross)

I am not alone with this uneasy feeling. 72 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are afraid of dying, according to a representative survey conducted by the Insa polling institute in Erfurt. Although the survey asked generally about dying and not about being dead, the pollsters assume that fear of finitude plays a role among respondents. With me this fear comes up in quiet moments. I shake my head in disbelief, an inner turmoil runs through my body. Death is inconceivable to me.

My uneasy feeling is related to the fact that death has long been – well – hushed up in our Western culture. This is how Professor Norbert Fischer from the Institute for Folklore at the University of Hamburg sees it. He is a social and cultural historian and does research on how people deal with death. Fischer says that people have been afraid of death at least since the 18th century. In the nineteenth century, death was increasingly discussed before death, i.e. since the time when the "closed Christian world view" broke down and the interpretation of death was no longer left to the churches alone.

"In the past, people put their own death in God’s hands and said: I can’t influence that," explains Fischer. In the modern age, however, things have changed: "Doctors developed medicines, and the first hospitals such as the Berlin Charite were built. This is how the idea came about that God alone does not determine everything." In the 20. In the twentieth century, death became increasingly taboo in society.

At home, too. In my parents’ house we didn’t talk about death, it was kept away from us children. We were allowed to skip funerals of relatives, our parents spared us the topic, as far as I remember. And I didn’t ask. To this day, I have never seen a corpse, and I have never stood at a deathbed. My relatives are small, the last funeral was years ago. Death is far away for me. I am now 32 years old and find that I cannot avoid the subject of dying forever.

When death becomes foreseeable, the view of it changes

"For some years now, people have been talking more about death again," says Norbert Fischer. The hospice movement has played a big part in this, she says. Hospice advocates want to raise awareness that dying and death are part of life – not least to promote dignified dying in the circle of loved ones. Those who work in a hospice know death. So I make an appointment with the pastor Reinhold Dietrich, the chaplain of the Protestant Hospice in Frankfurt am Main. He accompanies seriously ill people for months, talking to them about dying, death and their worries. In Dietrich’s office, a small indoor fountain gurgles, the lights are dimmed, it’s warm, the floor is wood. One feels immediately well.

Dietrich has observed that the will to live depends strongly on the quality of life, and that does not depend on age. Those whose health is getting worse and worse will at some point be "tired of life," for whom death is more of a release and no longer a threat. "Fear of death tends to be more of a concern for those who theorize about it," Dietrich says. "When death is foreseeable, then the view of it changes. You can’t understand that – and I hardly can either."

Dietrich says: "Some people find it very difficult to say goodbye, others find it easier."It can help to understand death as a final farewell, as a great task that one accepts, even if one has "a bit of jitters" before it. Accepting one’s own death is a lifelong process, he says. Faith can help, but religiousness is by no means a guarantee for an easier end to life.

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Because: the usual icy silence about one's own finiteness certainly does not alleviate the fear of death (Photo: Sibylle Bergemann/Ostkreuz)

Because: the usual icy silence about one’s own finiteness certainly does not alleviate the fear of death

(Photo: Sibylle Bergemann/East Cross)

In Germany, hardly anyone knows more about how individuals perceive the prospect of their own death and how they react to it than psychology professor Joachim Wittkowski from Wurzburg, who has been conducting research on "dealing with death" since the 1970s. He explains to me how my fear arose and why it is not unusual at my age: "At the age of eight to ten, children understand death in the adult sense, i.e. in scientific terms. They then know that time is linear and death is irreversible – if you’re dead, you stay dead. This understanding can frighten."

One explanation for the strength of the fear of losing one’s own life, that is, of being dead, is "attachment to the world," Wittkowski explains. It varies greatly depending on the stage of life: Young adults and people around the age of 40 are particularly attached to life, because at this age you build your own life, make plans, enter into relationships. A few years later, one is in the middle of life and bears responsibility for one’s family, but also at work. Older people are no longer so frightened by the loss of their own lives. "Older people feel the physical decline and know that they have lived their lives," explains Wittkowski. The connection to life becomes looser, one is full of life in old age.

I remember my grandmother who died at 94 years old. In the two years before her death, she became physically weaker and weaker and often said, "Why won’t God let me die??"She had lived a long life as a farmer’s wife with hard work and beautiful moments, but also lived through two world wars and the loss of many loved ones. She was full of life, she seems to me a good example for Wittkowski’s explanation. My grandmother demanded the death at the end virtually. And also the hint of pastor Dietrich was true for my grandmother: For her death meant redemption, no longer a threat.

But leaving aside age for a moment, what characterizes people who are particularly fearful and anxious in the face of their own transience?? According to Wittkowski, scientists have found that those who fear death are more likely to be more anxious overall from a personality psychology perspective: "Those who are more prone to perceive events as threatening are also more fearful; others do not react as strongly to them." This emotional excitability is also said to be genetically determined. Additionally experiences from early childhood had an effect.

I’ll admit it: I’m a guy who overthinks things from time to time. I’m not anxious all the time, but I have friends who are more spontaneous than I am, more likely to plunge into adventures, whereas I weigh things up several times and imagine what might happen. The description of Professor Wittkowski fits to me.

"Death Education" instead of deadly boredom in the classroom

Wittkowski advises me not to push aside my own death, but to deal consciously with finiteness and to regard death as a natural part of life. From his point of view a certain worrying is part of life. And I think: Yes, a little bit of jitters is obviously part of it. But I don’t have to drive myself crazy either.

Norbert Fischer, who researches the cultural history of death, would like to see dealing with death addressed in schools as well. In England and Japan, he says, there is "death education" in which death is discussed. Fischer compares this educational work with the de-tabooing of sexuality in the 1970s. "Germany still lags behind other countries when it comes to dealing with death," he says.

In fact, the knowledge of the experts and thinking about death takes away my fear of it to a certain extent. I still feel death as unpleasant, but also as a big challenge I will have to face someday, as a last big task. And that I want to do well.

The photos were taken in Tasiilaq on the east coast of Greenland. The Inuit people, who still live as traditional hunters in this particularly lonely area, are said to have a very relaxed attitude towards death. So they say in the evening before going to bed: Ilannga adivanniaana – I’m taking a piece of my life away now.

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