Reviewed by Clare Brook
Only a life that faces the truth of the finality of death allows an individual to live without existential anxiety, freeing them to pursue a passionate, authentic existence in the limited time that they have. Menzies & Menzies.
We’re all going to die! Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but at some point everyone’s path will, without question, lead to the grave.
Rachel and Ross Menzies theorize that this inescapable fact is the cause of much human angst, if only at a subconscious level. Furthermore, the fear of death is, ironically, speeding up the demise of our life on this planet. In their latest publication, Mortals, they propose that managing the dread of dying by embracing stoic philosophy would greatly improve human life – and death.
The authors refer to varying approaches that are taken to soften the unavoidable end. In Chapter Two, they detail various religious beliefs attempting to persuade its adherents of a literal afterlife. Initially, readers meet Egyptian mummies, spells and amulets before meandering through to modern day churches, mosques, synagogues and temples. Chapter Three, ‘Clinging to Culture’, examines cultural constructions of symbolic and virtual immortalities and the bold claim: The entirety of human civilization may be one elaborate defence against death. The authors refer to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death promoting the idea that to diminish death humans assign meaning and importance via cultural icons from flags to football clubs. Furthermore, defending these cultural beliefs and symbols holds such significance that men are, paradoxically, willing to die to do so. At this juncture, readers might be wondering about hard evidence to support these claims. But then the authors introduce research first used in 1984 to support Terror Management Theory – the mortality salience prime. The results were intriguing.
In these tests, pages of questionnaires are given to participants, seemingly on a particular subject, whereas the truly relevant questions regarding death are buried in their midst. The control group was given an identical questionnaire minus the few salient immortality questions. The first of many examples of these tests involved twenty-two judges thinking they were participating in a test with the focus on how personality factors affected decisions. They were given a case to assess regarding a sex worker and asked what bond would be appropriate for this law-breaker. The judges who had been primed with two death questions gave a harsher penalty by far. It was deduced that the need to defend cultural norms was enhanced by being reminded of their death. This test in differing forms is cited as evidence in most chapters. If readers find this inconclusive or over-extended, then much of this thesis becomes opinion rather than fact.
Chapter 4, ‘Immortality Projects and Creative Work’, continues in much the same vein, humans attempting immortality through being remembered via their work. Chapter 6, ‘Striving for Health and Refusing to Let Go’, details the success of the vitamin industry promoting longevity and also the bizarre cryonics and brain emulation techniques. The latter being exercises in wild and expensive delusion.
Perhaps more germane are the following chapters: Chapter 5 ‘All You Need is Love’, and Chapter 7, ‘The Buffer of Self-Esteem’. In these chapters, the authors account for factors that make humans resilient and less fearful of death. Here the authors detail the research leading to Attachment Theory. The initial experiments were cruel, horrible, and as far as I’m concerned an ugly blot on the discipline of psychology. Nevertheless, recent kinder research proves the point that a strong emotional foundation in childhood increases resilience, particularly bonding and trust between parent and baby. It could be interesting if this research were extended into other areas of social and psychological life. For instance, would a lack of child/parent bonding lead to anti-establishment ideology and account for growing mistrust, populism, and the current political success of the ‘strong-man’. And could a society correct this by systemic inclusion strategies?
Chapter 8, ‘Funerary Practices and what they tell us’ describe how the funeral industry operates. And one thing is evident – there needs to be some governmental oversight controlling rapacious operators. Chapter 9 came up with very interesting information on new technology that allows burial practices to be less of a financial burden and environmentally friendly. Excellent information!
Chapters 10 and 11 deals with mental health: ‘Death Dread and Mental Illness’ and ‘To be and Not to Be: the Suicide Solution’. I love how Menzies and Menzies cast a wide net, particularly on the issue of teen suicide attempts driven by feelings of pointlessness. They discuss, in a most positive fashion, differing perspectives of existentialist philosophers, such as Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and how their perspectives helped young patients rethink modern life. Chapter 13, ‘Stoicism and Neutral Acceptance’, also presents a useful philosophy guiding a realistic, though not depressing, view of life and death. These ideas were once commonplace. Maybe the self-help industry promoting the ‘sky’s the limit’ and ‘everything is possible’ cause unrealistic expectations that filter into overcoming death.
However, attitudes to death are changing; Chapter 12, ‘The Death Positive Movement’, give an account of social gatherings coming together purely to discuss how they feel about death. Bernard Crettaz, a Swiss sociologist, invited people to attend his café meetings just to talk freely about death and dying. The idea flew from country to country. To mention a few: John Underwood held ‘Death Café’ meetings in London; Michael Hebb’s ‘Death over Dinner’ in America; and Katie Williams in New Zealand, ‘Kiwi Coffin Club’.
Chapter 14, ‘End Days’, acts as a wake-up call regarding over-population, and our never-ending expansion apparently sprouting from a fear of death. Humans are genetically geared to go forth and multiply, to live forever by sending their genes into the future. But, a planet that is so over-populated can only collapse under the strain – our fear of death is going to be the cause of our demise.
There is so much in Mortals that needs to be considered with the hope of improving mental health at the deepest level.
By Rachel E. Menzies and Ross G. Menzies
Allen & Unwin
$34.99 [Paperback]; 448pp