Whistling Past the Graveyard

This news brief at Science and Religion Today caught my eye:

Are There Potential Benefits For Thinking About Death?

An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us reprioritize our goals and values, according to the latest analysis of recent scientific studies. Even nonconscious thinking about death—such as walking by a cemetery—could prompt positive changes and promote helping others, say psychologists. (The Telegraph)

Here’s how one study went, according to the article: researchers struck up conversations with two sets of people, one group that was walking by a cemetery and another that was walking a block away, to identify those who were most inclined to be helpful to others. Then, after each interview, another person dropped a notebook. Among those identified as helpful, those who had walked by the cemetery were 40% more likely to help with the dropped notebook than the helpful folks out of sight of the graveyard.

The study reportedly stands in contrast to past studies showing that as people cling to cultural beliefs that help them manage their fear of mortality, they can become more greedy and violent.

I can understand both the positive and negative reactions. We are constructed in such a way as to be alive and to remain so for as long as possible. From that viewpoint, death is failure, the collapse of the system to which every cell in our body contributes. So it’s not a surprise that reminders of death can jerk us back on our life-affirming resources. Those resources include being positive about ourselves and generous and helpful with others. But they also include violence against others and self-protective greed as well. It is as if, depending on how the reminders of death present themselves, we need to reassert and re-practice in basic fashion some of the survival strategies that got us this far in the first place.

2 thoughts on “Whistling Past the Graveyard

  1. It’s true actually; after visiting a church and lighting candles for the living and for the dead, and reflecting for a few moments, I noticed some friends of mine were remarkably calmer and more open to altruism than before, when they had been in a frightful hurry to get the whole thing over with.

    I’ve been with buddhists when they pray, to offer thanks for life, and their mood is entirely different afterwards. An interesting post

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