Why don't we accept our death

theme - Anxiety

When I was six or seven years old, I saw a puppet show on television on one of those endless childhood Sundays. It was about a man who escaped death several times and grew old. But one day death - a black cloak without a face - had seen through the cunning of the ancient man and took him with him into his kingdom. That scared me. How can it be, I thought, that one day you will be completely gone? What if it's all over

I'm not alone with this bad feeling. 72 percent of 18 to 29 year olds are afraid of dying, according to a representative survey by the opinion research institute Insa from Erfurt. Although questions were generally asked about dying and not about being dead, the pollsters assume that the fear of finiteness plays a role in the respondents. For me, this fear arises in quiet moments. I then shake my head in disbelief, an inner unrest runs through my body. Death is incomprehensible to me.

My uneasy feeling has to do with 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 Studies at the University of Hamburg sees it. He is a social and cultural historian and researches dealing with death. Fischer says that people have been increasingly afraid of death since the 18th century at the latest, since the time when the “closed Christian worldview” broke up and the interpretation of death was no longer left to the churches alone.

“In the past you put your own death in God's hands and said: I can't influence that,” explains Fischer. But that has changed in the modern age: “Doctors developed drugs, the first hospitals such as the Berlin Charité were built. So the idea arose that God alone does not determine everything. ”In the 20th 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 subject, as far as I can remember. And I didn't ask. To this day I have never seen a corpse, and I have never stood on a deathbed either. My relatives are small, the last funeral was years ago. Death is far away for me. I am now 32 years old and I think: I cannot avoid the topic of dying forever.

When death becomes foreseeable, the view of it changes

"In the last few years there has been more talk about death again," says Norbert Fischer. The hospice movement played a major role in this. The advocates of hospices want to create awareness that dying and death are a part of life - not least in order to promote dignified dying among loved ones. Anyone who works in the hospice knows death. So I make an appointment with Pastor Reinhold Dietrich, the pastor of the Evangelical Hospice in Frankfurt am Main. He accompanies seriously ill people for months, talks to them about dying, death and their worries. A small fountain splashes in Dietrich's office, the light is dimmed, it's warm, the wooden floor. You immediately feel good.

Dietrich observed that the will to live strongly depends on the quality of life, and that it does not depend on age. Anyone whose health is getting worse and worse will at some point be "tired of life", for whom death means more redemption and no longer a threat. "Those who deal with it theoretically are more likely to fear death," says Dietrich. “If death is foreseeable, then the view of it changes. You cannot understand that - and neither can I. "

Dietrich says: “Some people find it very difficult to say goodbye, others find it easier.” It could help to understand death as a last farewell, as a big task that you accept, even if you have “a little jitter” beforehand . Accepting one's own death is a lifelong process. Faith can help, but religiosity is by no means a guarantee of getting out of life more easily.

How the individual perceives the prospect of his own death and behaves towards it, hardly anyone in Germany knows more about this than the psychology professor Joachim Wittkowski from Würzburg, who has been researching “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, that is, scientifically. You then know that time is linear and death is irreversible - whoever is dead remains dead. This understanding can be frightening. "

One explanation for the strength of the fear of losing one's own life, that is, of being dead, is the “attachment to the world,” explains Wittkowski. It is very different depending on the stage of life: Young adults and people around the age of 40 are particularly strongly bound to life, because at this age you build your own life, make plans, enter into relationships. A few years later you are in the middle of life and have responsibility for the family, but also for your job. Older people are no longer so terrified of losing their own life. "Older people feel the physical decline and know that they have lived their lives," explains Wittkowski. The bond with life becomes looser, one is full of life in old age.

I remember my grandma who died when she was 94 years old. In the two years before her death she became physically weaker and weaker and often said: “Why does God not let me die?” She had lived a long life as a farmer with hard work and good moments, but also the two world wars and the loss of many loved ones People went through. She was full of life, she seems to me a good example of Wittkowski's explanation. In the end, my grandma practically demanded death. Pastor Dietrich's advice also applied to my grandmother: For her, death meant redemption, no longer a threat.

But if you disregard age - what characterizes people who are particularly afraid of their own impermanence? According to Wittkowski, scientists have found that those who are more fearful from a personality psychological point of view are more likely to fear death: “Those who tend to perceive events as threatening are also more afraid, others do not react as strongly to them.” This emotional excitability is said to be also genetically determined. In addition, experiences from early childhood had an impact.

I'll admit: I'm the type of guy who gives too much thought to myself every now and then. I'm not always anxious, but I have friends who are more spontaneous than me, more likely to venture into adventures as I weigh and envision what might happen. Professor Wittkowski's description suits me.

"Death Education" instead of deadly boredom in class

Wittkowski advises me not to put my own death aside, but to deal consciously with finitude and to regard death as a natural part of life. From his point of view, a certain amount of anxiety is part of life. And I think: yes, a bit of jitters is obviously part of it. But I don't have to drive myself crazy either.

Norbert Fischer, who conducts research on the cultural history of death, would welcome it if dealing with death were also a topic in school. In England and Japan there is a "death education" in which death is discussed. Fischer compares this educational work with the removal of taboos on sexuality in the 1970s. “When it comes to dealing with death, Germany is still lagging behind other countries,” he says.

In fact, knowing the experts and thinking about death takes some of my fear of it away. I still find death unpleasant, but also as a great challenge that I will have to face at some point, as a last great task. And then I want to do it well.

The photos were taken in Tasiilaq on the east coast of Greenland. The people of the indigenous Inuit population, some of whom still live as traditional hunters in this particularly lonely region, are said to have a very relaxed approach to death. So they say in the evening before going to bed: Ilannga adivanniaana - I am now taking away a piece of my life.

Felix Ehring lives in Frankfurt am Main and writes as a freelance journalist for Die Zeit, the daily newspaper, Spiegel Online, Das Parlament and many others. In other words, he is fully in life. This is probably one of the reasons why he doesn't even want to imagine his own death. www.felix-ehring.de