We fear death because no one, except by faith, knows what death is.
Since faith is based not on knowing, but on wishing, no one has 100% proof of the great beyond. We fear death also, because we learn to be afraid of nature and natural process. We rail against that which we cannot control or conquer. We fear death because we do not accept it is part of life recycling life.
The mind does not go gently into that good night.
There are several components as to why we fear death. They can be divided into loose categories, although still completely inter-related. Human beings have our mental conceptualization of death, our biology, and our cultural programming.
To begin with the conceptual, humans fear death because deep, down inside, we have a core sense that we are not really living life to the fullest. We are so preoccupied with the past, the worries of the future, and ever present assault upon our senses, that there is little wonder we have such anxiety. Our perils on earth have put us in a difficult place where we don’t want responsibility for suffering in the world, nor do we wish the power to change it, because that requires our surrender of helplessness. It is complex.
That is just the conceptual part of the fear. There is also the biological cause.
Fight or flight is the innate biological blueprint written upon our genes that tells us to react in the event of danger. Oxygen, glucose, and hormones surge through us, and we will always remember that moment if it occurs, because it is one of overpowering adrenalin. Because we are human beings with larger brains than most other animals, the concept of death is held, altered, amplified, and most often distorted. We react more to the concept of death than all other animals. This conceptualization both protects us, for we learn what to avoid, but it also scars us. We imprint upon our psyches, a kind of post traumatic stress syndrome that alerts our limbic system to be in terror of death even when it is rather unlikely.
This is how phobias are born. It is also how we come to fear the unknown, and to judge others based on superficial things we may unconsciously recognize. War, racism, a sense of superiority, or need to conquest in order to feel adequate all add to the programming blended with our biology to create what might be called the toxic scent of death.
Our culture adds to the problem by hiding death. We are presented with plenty of murders, and a lot of violence in movies, but that is drama. Death is usually quiet, and we dare not whisper its name, even when in the same room with a dying loved one we know will likely pass that very day.
Death is natural, and necessary for life to be, but we can envision an “afterlife” sense beyond it, so we don’t have to attend to its presence. We associate death with rot, but we forget to associate rot with compost and re birth.
There is an industry around death that also tends to add a hush factor. We put people in very pretty boxes, or allow cremation, if it has been deemed. Yet, we do not question whether putting so much attention on how “nice” the box, or ceremony is, to what real psychological comfort it brings. We are not given choices that reflect our free will. You cannot request to have your body left in the wilderness, or fed to your beloved cats.
They say you never really get over the death of a loved one, but we do get “on” with life. Maybe some do, and others do not.
For the funeral however, we busy ourselves with the costs, and the tasks. It brings necessary ceremony, ritual, even saying goodbye, for some, but it is also just a distraction. We do not deal with the corpse directly, it is thought of as distasteful, unnatural, or somehow, in most cultures, taboo. This is a sad cost for us, for it alienates our understanding of death as a normal part of life.
The question of how and why we fear death is almost as complex and individual as death itself is. A better question would be, why do we so fear life, and what can we connect to on earth, and our sustaining biology combined with big brains, that will allow us to live each and every moment in the now, where life is happening.
Death happens only for one brief moment of your existence, life is happening many thousands of moments, about 90,000 per day. One should really examine why we waste even one of those precious moments, worrying about just the final one.