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Taking Questions

Why do we fear the dead? 

It would be unfair to say that all fear the dead but it seems fair to say that many, if not most, of us are not very comfortable with the dead. When imagining being in the presence of a dead body, words like "creepy", "scary" or "unsettling" come to mind. When adults worry about the possibility of a child attending a funeral, a major area of concern is the child's exposure to the presence of a dead body. The popularity of television shows which star a dead body each week illustrates both our anxiety and intrigue about the dead. We are invited past our squeamishness and discomfort into a foreign place where the dead are common and often the center of attention.

For most of us, a human dead body is different that a dead body of another previously living creature. If we were to find a large (or it may not have to be large) snake in our home or yard that looked like it might be dead, many of us would hope that the snake is truly dead and we might get a stick (or something sufficiently long) to prod the snake to see if it moves. If it doesn't move, our heart rate would likely begin to return to normal and we would feel a sense of relief. A dead snake won't bite us, slither across the floor or coil up in our shoes, flower beds or actual beds. A dead snake is a safe snake. (If you are a fan of snakes, feel free to substitute a rat, spider, scorpion, etc. to make the illustration feel a little more useful).

A dead human is a different thing. A dead human is generally a much more safe human than a live one-we can outrun or outmaneuver a dead person and the dead are in no position to call us names or make threats to our families-and yet the presence of a dead person generally raises the anxiety level in the room for us living persons. As one who was raised in the residence part of a small town funeral home, my mother passed along the wisdom she received from her parents: "No reason to fear the dead, it's the living that can hurt you." Yet so much of the time we do fear the dead.

Nothing reminds us of the temporary and fragile nature of our lives, that we and our loved ones will surely die, and that we are frustratingly mortal as the dead. We learn this as children as we encounter dead bugs, dead plants and trees, dead pets, dead grandparents, other dead relatives and eventually dead friends. Death comes to all and in that ultimate fairness we find little comfort. And there is mystery with the dead-do they continue to exist and if so, where are they now and what is it like there? What did their lives mean (or not mean)? Then those questions rebound to us-questions of our existence and the meaning (or not meaning) of our lives. Old and very human questions.

While the big and unwieldy questions that the dead call to the surface may remain refusing to be less big or more wieldy, it seems that sometimes we find ways to be less intimidated by the dead. There are those who through up-close-and-personal experiences find ways to be less anxious with the dead. Some are people who have special vocations where there is much death exposure. More often these experiences occur in the living of a long life with the natural experience of many dead and these elders set an example of befriending the dead and mortality. We are not born fearing the dead but we teach children to fear the dead with creepy stories, "don't touch that" responses and adult death anxiety. Perhaps it is possible to have less fear of the dead if we take the lessons available from both the very young and the very old in our world who come to the dead with both more wonder and familiarity.

After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.

Professor Albus Dumbledore
Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone

J.K. Rowling

Suggested questions for future editions can be sent to goodmourning@archildrens.org  (please put "Taking Questions" in the subject line). 

 


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