Remember Death to Really Live

Our society has placed a taboo over honest, straightforward talk about death.

This taboo on death is something we impose on our culture, wittingly or not. But the taboo also imposes something on us that we ought to recognize and take seriously. Ignoring our mortality distorts our view of reality, and allows us to live as if death is someone else’s problem.

 

When I tell people I’ve written a book about death, the most common response I receive is laughter.

I take no offense, though. Their laughter isn’t the cruel, mocking sort. We joke about death by instinct. It’s socially unacceptable, and therefore hilarious.

This response confirms one of the major reasons I wrote the book in the first place. Our society has placed a taboo over honest, straightforward talk about death. Perhaps without realizing it, many of us have accepted an unspoken agreement not to go there (even though we all go there).

Porn and Zombies

One of the first writers to describe this taboo was a British sociologist named Geoffrey Gorer, writing back in the 1950s. In an essay called “The Pornography of Death,” Gorer suggested that death had become to the twentieth century what sex was to the nineteenth century. Even as the prominence of sex broadened — in conversation, in mainstream television, in what kids are allowed to see and know — death was pushed further out of sight and out of mind.

This taboo on death is something we impose on our culture, wittingly or not. But the taboo also imposes something on us that we ought to recognize and take seriously. Ignoring our mortality distorts our view of reality, and allows us to live as if death is someone else’s problem.

What the taboo does to us is the deeper insight of Gorer’s essay, and the reason for its provocative title. When you suppress honest talk about basic human experiences, interest in them doesn’t disappear; the interest itself is irrepressible. Instead, interest bubbles up in perverted forms. With sex, you get pornography. With death, you get zombie movies.

Escaping Reality

If porn is the perverted form of monogamous, married sexuality, then death on screen is the perverted form of death in reality.

Think about it: the deaths shown in our most popular shows and movies are violent deaths. They often come to relatively young people who usually aren’t expecting to die. Characters aren’t dying of old age and natural decay. They’re dying because a psychopath, a mafia hitman, or a zombie killed them. You don’t watch these shows for insight into genuine human experience. You watch them to escape from genuine human experience.

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