The reason many people fear death is because human beings are blessed, or cursed, with vivid imaginations, and we are also aware of our own mortality. We know we will die one day, and our imaginations tend to fill in the details.
But is it really death that we fear, or the act of dying? After all, death is the end of life, which rationally contains nothing to fear. There is nothing to fear for the atheists who believe that death is the end, with nothing afterwards, and therefore nothing to fear. There is nothing to fear for the people of faith who believe death is the gateway to a new, and better, life. For such people death ought to be welcomed rather than feared. It should only be fearful for people of faith who believe in hell, and who suspect they might be going there!
Dying, on the other hand, can be a source of great fear. We fear suffering, being in pain, dying so suddenly we don’t know what is happening, or dying so slowly we are tortured for months. We fear dying alone, dying en masse, experiencing the terror of a car or plane crash, or a terrorist’s bomb. We also fear how well we will die. Will we make fools of ourselves? Will we be cowards?
It is this fear of dying, I believe, that makes death so fascinating to most of us. It is why people gather at the site of crashes, why the news broadcasts are so full of death, why television reality shows analysing crime or air crashes are so popular, and why news of mass deaths, such as the tsunami in 2004, draw our attention so powerfully. Being a voyeur of death and dying helps us cope with the fear of our own deaths.
Many people are also afraid for the people left behind if and when they die. How will the children cope? How will our spouse cope? What will happen at work? There is also an element of self-importance in this fear. Surely the world cannot really go on without us! As long as the fear does not become overwhelming or an obsession, it is perfectly normal to have this kind of fear.
Death can also be fearful because it means our own absence. When someone close to us dies it is a shock to realise that no matter where we go in this world the lost love one is nowhere to be found.
Should we be afraid of death? For people of faith in an after life the fear of being dead is irrational since the after life is better than this one. For people who do not have a faith in an after-life, fear of being dead is also irrational since being dead is no different than the billions of years of non-existence before we were born.
Fear of the process of dying, however, is less easy to dismiss as irrational. There are many ways of dying that are terrifying or agonising. Let us hope we all die well, and with dignity.