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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The American experience of death

    Jared Pflumcolumnist
    Jared Pflum

    We’re all dying. With each passing moment our lives are slipping away. Yet, we live in a society that often refuses to think about death and sometimes outright ignores it.

    During my recent tour of Italy, I visited the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. Created by friars in the 16th century, the site contains about 8,000 preserved bodies. It is now open to the public as a reminder of the inevitability of death.

    Though I was strangely unmoved by my visit, I was fascinated by the reactions of my American traveling companions. Some refused to enter the chambers while those who did seemed appalled by the display. Unfortunately, I feel these reactions largely represent our society’s attitude toward death.

    In America, death is taboo. We don’t mind it in fantasy and entertainment (indeed, the more violence and death, the better), but when it comes to reality, we strive to avoid death as much as possible.

    Much of our inability to deal with death is likely due to the fact that we live in a country where death is not part of everyday life. After all, most of us have never had to witness our loved ones die of starvation, nor have we personally encountered the effects of genocide.

    Likewise, nowadays children are often shielded from funerals for fear the experience will upset them, and our media refrains from broadcasting much of the harsh realities of war for the same reason. Surely these acts of “”protecting”” us from reality make dealing with death more difficult.

    Regardless, just because we have the privilege of being able to avoid death doesn’t mean we should. By continuing to avoid the reality of death, we create a variety of personal and social problems.

    In 2004, a study was published in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling detailing “”immortality complexes”” among American youth. According to the report, adolescents in America are increasingly engaging in risky behavior due to their inability to recognize the reality of their own mortality.

    The same study indicates that ignorance about death has contributed to the glamorization of death in youth culture as well as the inability of adolescents to cope with the death of loved ones.

    Our society’s avoidance of death has led to alarming trends in adulthood as well. USA Today reported in 1994 that only 40 percent of American adults had wills. Those numbers may be even lower now, as Men’s Health reported in 2002 that only one-third of American adult males had made legal preparations for death.

    These numbers are alarming, especially considering the fact that many “”Baby Boomers”” will soon be nearing their final years. Consisting of 76 million members, the Baby Boomer generation accounts for nearly 30 percent of the United States’ total population. That many of them have yet to make final preparations could lead to a variety of legal and social disasters in the coming years.

    Much of our inability to deal with death is likely due to the fact that we live in a country where death is not part of everyday life.

    Clearly, then, it’s time for us to stop avoiding our fears and examine death. We don’t need to think only of death or develop some morbid fascination with it, but we can and must confront it. For by examining death, we can enhance life.

    We can gain a deeper appreciation for our loved ones knowing that our time with them is limited. We can experience closure knowing that we have settled our affairs in a manner that will not burden those whom we leave behind. And perhaps we can learn to cultivate more compassion.

    There’s truth to the old adage that death is the great leveler. After all, rich or poor, black or white, death awaits each of us. We can use that fact to remind us that despite all of our petty disagreements, in the end, we’re not all that different.

    Ultimately though, we can use death to revitalize our lives. Interviews of individuals with terminal illnesses show that many of them experience a degree of liberation in facing their own mortality. It seems that knowing their death is imminent allows them to focus on the things that are really important in life.

    Hopefully, as a society we can come to cultivate a similar attitude. Though death can be frightening, it has much to teach us – if and when we’re ever willing to acknowledge it.

    Jared Pflum is a religious studies senior. He can be reached at

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