On the Fear of Death

“Consciously or unconsciously,

with acceptance or denial,

every day you move one day nearer to your death.

Is today a good day to die? ”

-Susun Weed

Several years ago there was an article about the trial of Josef Fritzl, the German man who kept his daughter locked in the basement for 24 years. When called to testify, Fritzl was asked if he had any friends as an adult. He replied, “I had no friends. You need to nurture friendships and I had no time for that.”

Fritzl, for all his monstrosity, was correct. Relationships require constant nurturing and upkeep — like flowers in a garden. Ignored, they will wither and die. Death is the most important relationship you will ever have. It will not do to ignore it.

When I first began working at a mortuary four years ago, I was faced with mortality fears I hadn’t even realized were there. The cold, dead bodies told me that everyone I knew, from my mother to my dear friends to myself, were going to die. Some sooner rather than later. Cruelly annihilated out of my life. It is hard to begin a relationship with someone you consider so capricious and unfair.

If Death were a man, my friends would tell me to break up with him. But alas, with Death there is no such option. We must do the best we can. There are countless How-to-Wikihow-Cosmo-Seventeen magazine articles on the vast interweb that give us steps to a better relationship. I share with you now the hokey but useful ones that I used to improve my relationship with death and my own mortality.

Discover what makes the other person tick.

I cannot stress this enough. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being interested in mortality and death. Don’t let anyone ever tell you you are “sick” or “morbid” or “deviant.” It is patently untrue. Death is where every single one of us will end up. To feign disinterest in such a fundamental thing is denial, plain and simple. Read everything you can about death. Read the philosophers, read the scientists. Figure out what you (not your culture or your religion) believe happens to a body after death and what rituals make sense to you. In this case, ignorance is not bliss. With death, ignorance is fear.

Forgive one another.

Forgive Death. As much as it feels like it’s aimed at you… it’s just — well — not. Death doesn’t play favorites. Just as God isn’t really present for every football touchdown, Death is not truly a vengeful creature lying in wait for a chance to murder your happiness. Natural disasters or accidents are just that — natural or accidents. It’s not Death smiting you specifically. The mere fact that today could be the day you die is what makes life beautiful.

Review your expectations.

What is it that you want out of your own death? Because the universe won’t know if you don’t tell it.

I want to die with my affairs in order.

I want to die with my family and friends knowing how much I love them.

I want to die having made peace with death.

Those are my expectations. But knowing what you want out of a “good death” is not enough. It’s up to you to make sure that it happens. It’s my responsibility to have my funeral arrangements in place and my bank statements stored neatly and my friends recently told that they are strange delirious perfection. I make my own good death. That is power.

Spend quality time together.

The last few months I’ve been so busy I haven’t been spending time with Death like I used to.  This was obvious last weekend when the thought came to mind of finding out I had terminal cancer and would be dead in four months. I was horrified. I sat for two hours, first being angry and scared and then shifting to how I could perhaps use four months of life. How I could make videos addressing the end of life, how I would get to see all my old friends in a sort of weirdo Victorian hospice visitor’s salon, how one of my best friends just bought a 1969 seafoam green Land Cruiser which could be used to drive my body up to the natural burial cemetery in Marin when I died. I sat with the thought until I reconciled myself to it. I sat with it until the anxiety went away and I was once again at peace with it. Be with your death anxiety until you move through it. As they say, the only way out is through. Many of us have thoughts of death, but we don’t see them to the end. We get stuck in loops, reliving the scary part over and over, but never the resolution.

Laugh together.

Do not be afraid to delight in death. Of course I do not mean you are happy when someone dies, or happy to see someone in pain or mourning. But the vast majority of your life isn’t spent in mourning. It’s spent living. And while you’re living, it will not hurt you to have a fun, positive relationship with Death. Death is fascinating. Chaotic and ordered at the same time. There are strange rituals and art to be explored. The never-ending cultural entertainment of what death does to people, to relationships, to society. I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death. I bet you would too if you got to know him.

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  • Red


    • Gladys

      When my son died at age 17 I was devastated. As the days and weeks passed I noticed the increased confidence I was feeling to use in my life. Not sure how to explain this, words are inadequate- I felt I now had something, some kind of spiritual energy that was strengthening me. In my life things were tense at the time and as my grieving went along this new confidence enabled me to accomplish what I would have thought impossible. I had a strong sense of my son with me, or his essence strength with me, a gift from him.

  • Anonymous

    Love, love, love. Beautifully articulated and so important to remember.

  • Fionacat86

    So eloquent and amazing, as always 🙂 

  • Charlescowling

    Brilliant. A marvellous distillation of a lot of thinking. 

  • Katiedirge

    So beautifully written

  • Richard

    Personal reflection on ‘Fear of Death’:
    For a number of years in my late thirties I struggled with profound suicidal depression. (I am also familiar with Marin County). I am currently being treated for metastatic prostate cancer.In recent years I worked in the local crematorium chapel. Because I quickly became comfortable in this enviroment and became familiar with death and the funeral process I have achieved an inner piece in the knowledge that the spectre of depression had been banished from my mind forever – the ‘imminent’ prospect of death holds no fear.

  • gloriamundi

    My, you write well. This essay is intensely useful. Thank you. I shall use it.

  • Wendydwagner

    Bravo. Thank you!

  • Mdonohuedonohue38

    Thank you,for your openness and willingness to help confront fear.Cissie

  • Brett

    What inspiration and hope! I am a cancer survivor and had many conversations with Death! It is important to maintain that relationship in order to maintain perspective and priorities!
    Thanks for verbalizing what most of us just emote!
    Brett Donohue- Obal

  • Kiera

    I think that developing a relationship with Death is a brilliant idea, especially as it is an ongoing relationship that changes over time. I was never freaked out about my own death, only other people’s, such as my parents, because I would be the one being left behind. That feeling changed once I had kids, because suddenly I had small little beings who would feel those feelings of abject terror that I had. I have definitely had to redefine my relationship with Death since then. My main hope for a good Death is to be old and ready for it. That’s the beauty of aging – your body gets tired, your brain gets tired, and you become more ready to die. It makes more sense.

    My favorite image of Death is Terry Pratchett’s characterization. I’m an atheist, but if I believed that anything happened to my soul after I died I would love to have Pratchett’s Death come to escort me to the afterlife. Having someone with such dry wit saying DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING. JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH would be pretty awesome.

  • Janette

    Although only a teen, I’ve had a couple of friends recently who had lost their mothers to cancer, This has caused me to think about death, and see it in a very negative light but you’ve helped me to see the beauty in death.

  • The female version of “Hamlet” holding the skull!

  • Punsterdo

    I love this. I’ve always been curious, and I’ve been told on no uncertain terms that this wishing to know is a disgusting trait in a gentle person such as myself. I’m still frightened of death but I’d like to take a good look at the many scary things lurking in the dark corners of the room.

  • Sabine Heusler-Schick

    I’ve just found a place to actually breathe and feel at home! all this is what I’ve felt and wanted to put across in my songs and music for years… you’ve just inspired me to keep going… Nice to feel there is a little tiny corner in the world to go to and feel not like the only ‘weird’ one. Whenever I feel alone in my thoughts I’m just going to come here and sit for while. 🙂

  • Lisa Morasco

    As someone for whom death is present in everyday life, and had the pleasure of knowing so many beautiful souls who are not longer here, I feel it is my duty to pay tribute to these beautiful people by thanking death for giving me the gift of life. People often find it strange when I say the best thing that ever happened to me was the death of my brother. Obviously I wish my brother was still here, but in his death, in
    accepting my fate, I have been able to live a life worth living. Be a person worthy of a beautiful life. His death has given me a beautiful gift to treasure life, of acknowledging my own destiny – everyone’s destiny. And with this has given me power over my life to be strong enough to make the bold choices so many are afraid of. So be thankful for the loved ones lost, don’t wallow in the tragedy.

  • I experienced the early death of several friends as a young teenager, then as a young widow, along the death of both parents and my older brother.

    I have an ongoing awareness of how death is an essential and vital teacher about life and faith. Thank you for this site and all the practical wisdom you share. Death and life figure prominently as subject matter for my art work. I have learned so much, but continue in life long learning and your site is great fodder for my future art work. Thank you so much.

    • Blake Crowe

      I would love to know where I may view your artwork, That is if you share it.

  • caseykiss

    i am personally fascinated by the victorians and there veiw thoughts and ideas on death. i find vicrorian death photography romantically beautiful and poetic…

  • theitalien

    Funny you say “I love him.” I am Italian and to me death is a “she,” la morte.

    • Blake Crowe

      I am not Italian, But I too view death as a She.

      • taelorb

        Mother Earth, Father Time.

  • The Original Handbook for the Recently Deceased

  • Blake Crowe

    My happening upon this website about forty minutes ago has changed the way I look at my Love’s death. And the way I look at my own, My fear is not of death nor the agony that may accompany it but of being forgotten after I am gone. Like Fritzl I have not nurtured any relationships with other humans (save with my Girlfriend). I have been far too drawn into my anger and dissolution at and with Death to see past my own eyes and understand that Lily’s death was inevitable, that it was going to happen no matter what I wanted to say or do. I have been hating and destroying myself for not preventing her death, when in reality there was nothing I could do to prevent that natural occurrence.

    All I can say now is Thank You to Caity and to the others who wrote the articles on this site.
    And to Lily,
    I love you, Sleep Well

  • Prasad

    Death means changing body. Everyday we are dying at night, and in the morning we come back in the body. The day when we do not come in this body and go to another baby body is called as death. Soul never dies or take birth, it is the body takes birth and dies in the presence of the soul. The body is always dead in the absence of the soul, it is the soul activate the body. However, one cannot see the soul because the dimension of the soul is so small, it is smaller than the material atoms. Thus one can understand the existence of the soul only by its consciousness. Just like before appearance of the Sun disc there is light in the eastern horizon. That shows the appearance of the Sun, similarly the consciousness is the symptom of the soul. The symptom of consciousness is desire. Throughout from your infancy to youth to old age the soul stays same, it is the development of body makes one’s action different. Based on these pious and impious action one gets another body at the time of death. In Bhagavad-Gita as it is, in the first 30 verses of the second chapter and 15 Chapter the Supreme Majestic Personality of Godhead has explained the features, qualities and dimension of the Soul. Ignorance is not definitely bliss. Bhagavad-Gita As it is, by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada

    • Nuneh

      But no ignorance is ever blissful. Yet all fear is destructive.

  • Lois V Harrison

    Here all these years an unwitting member at large, not so much embracing decay as revelling in the transformative alchemy, nonetheless working towards the uncommon good of the goal. http://www.toomuchhamletforme.com et al

  • Kyle Mc

    This is absolutely beautiful. I’ve had such a hard time over the last several years confronting the idea of death and this is exactly what I needed. Thank you for helping me be able to hopefully turn a new page and embrace death as something to find comfort in rather than to fear.

    I want to die having made peace with death.

  • Ram

    I’m a devote of the Mexican Santa Muerte – many people usually talk about it, and such a few of them really know what thery’re talking about, but, never mind – in ouc cult, She’s called in many ways :La Flaquita, la Nina Blanca, la Patrona, la Senora -and many others – but, exentially, none of those names denotes fear, or disease, or even ugly and unpleasant things and situations – She’s the Bride, the Ultimate Bride, who will come, sooner or later to embrace all of us, and to give us the Last Compassionate Kiss – and that’s all – Se Ve, y Se Siente – y la Santa esta PRESENTE!!

    • ThePhantomSafetyPin

      That is a fascinating and beautiful way to think of death.

  • Guillermina

    My journey with Death began quite early. I have always said that I exist because of Death. One year prior to my birth in 1951 my mother gave birth to a stillborn baby boy. She did not want any more children. So, because she lost this child, she tried once more. And thus I came into existence. Then I was four years old when my mother took me to my first funeral. Thereafter, I attended lots and lots of funerals. (But the first death that “got my attention” was a 10-year-old girl, an acquaintance, when I was about 10 myself—I saw my own mortality.) I am thankful that my mother took me to all those funerals. Of course, being Mexican, it’s almost “de rigeur” to attend funerals, you know? In that manner, she helped prepare me for her own death, which happened when I was only 18 years old.

    I have always been fascinated by Death—the concept, the existential subject, the physical process—all of it. In my 20s I read a book about funerals and the funeral industry and decided I would be cremated. I can be very matter-of-fact when planning funerals: I have delivered one eulogy for my dear uncle and written several poems/elegies to friends.

    Caitlin, your book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes was recommended to me by a friend who knows and understands my fascination with death. I am so happy that there are others like me and that you specifically are on this quest for the GOOD DEATH. About time!

  • Nuneh

    I have always had a very close relationship with death. It’s been a bond formed from the day I was born. Visions in dreams imprinting as memories and fearless knowledge in my own mortality and that of those around me.
    Knowing once I’m gone, I’m gone. But today is what’s important. Tomorrow may not be.
    The bonds I make today, the choices I choose and paths I walk are the only things I can control, hopefully one of those choices doesn’t lead me down a path in front of a bus. Taxes and death are simply there. Like love and hate. I hate taxes but can find peace in my love of Death.

  • Gerry Tiongco

    I love Steve Jobs’ speech on death , let me share:

    ” Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

    Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

    Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

    No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet, death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it, and that is how it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

    ― Steve Jobs

  • ThePhantomSafetyPin

    There was a very touching quote I once saw: “Life and Death have been in love for as long as can be recalled. Life sends countless gifts towards Death, and Death keeps them forever.” I think that is what has led me to find my own peace with the fact I’ll die someday.

  • London Ward

    love it…..(me)…whom has lost everyone I love and so fearful of death…thank you so much……….you are what I have been waiting for in life……………………..acceptance of death…….(as death is all around)…………….:)…London……..

  • Nathaniel

    The first two paragraphs are the single most bizarre starting paragraphs I’ve ever read to any beginning of any piece of writing. There has GOT to be a better way to express whatever the heck you were trying to say just now. I can think of like three.

    Otherwise, very good article! I love longer, more in-depth articles like this.