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COVID-19 and the Denial of Death: Part II

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death was part of a broader cultural moment that reassessed the position of death in modern social life. Jessica Mitford’s 1963 exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death excoriated funeral directors for commercializing death and taking advantage of grieving families. Academics like Geoffrey Gorer, in 1965’s Death, Grief and Mourning, and Phillippe Ariès in 1974’s Western Attitudes Towards Death from the Middle Ages to Present, confirmed that modern life had involved a very gradual cordoning off of the dead and dying in hospitals and increasingly remote cemeteries, while encouraging the abandonment of time-honored rituals for making sense of mortality. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 On Death and Dying popularized the notion that grief was a natural process involving passage through a common set of stages—though these stages are interpreted more broadly today—and that shunning mourners and cordoning of the dying presented unhealthy obstacles to this process. The Denial of Death offered the kind of grand theory that purported to explain all of these unhealthy behaviors, and perhaps lead us toward a fundamentally different way of thinking about mortality.

 

This cultural moment came with real material changes in how death and dying were treated too. The modern hospice movement began in the UK in 1967, with the creation of the first specialized hospital for the dying; seven years later organizations in the US were beginning to offer home-based hospice care. Though this movement grew slowly, by 2019 the New England Journal of Medicine noted that, for the first time since the early 1900s, more Americans were dying at home than in the hospital. At the same time, younger generations appear to be more open to discussing death than ever, as demonstrated in the rise of “death cafes” in the US and elsewhere, in which people are encouraged to talk about death and often gather to listen to speakers with expertise on dying and mourning. Of course, the definition and extent of death denial is still debated by many academics—is it an innate problem of the human condition or a problem unique to modern, wealthy Westerners? But psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyscsynski have at least been able to confirm some of Becker’s main hypotheses in laboratory settings. Their 2015 book, The Worm at the Core, showed that when primed with some kind of reminder of their own mortality, people tended to cast harsher judgments on others, engage in more stereotyping, and become more susceptible to charismatic political leaders.


Results like those clearly resonate with what we’ve seen from the political right wing in the COVID era. Becker’s claims about group psychology in the face of impending mortality certainly help explain increasingly rabid Trumpism in the US and its strange couplings with anti-vaccine fanaticism and far-out QAnon conspiracy theorizing. Group membership, an us-against-them mentality, and the transference of anxieties onto a charismatic leader—Becker described all of these as coping mechanisms when faced with one’s own mortality, and so it makes complete sense that a sizeable portion of the country would react this way when confronted with a threat to their own lives of such unprecedented magnitude.

 

These same psychological processes also help explain why liberals eventually abandoned COVID mitigations too. For the Biden administration the political calculation was obvious—benefit from the roll out of the vaccines and then bask in the glow of defeating the pandemic. But when evidence quickly emerged that the vaccines did not actually stop people from transmitting or contracting the virus, and that it was unlikely even to become a mild, seasonal occurrence like the flu, the Biden team refused to course correct. For example, at a June 2021 speech First Lady Jill Biden asked the crowd “doesn’t the air smell so much sweeter without our masks?” Remarks like this were part of a larger strategy to frame most forms of mitigation besides vaccination as temporary penalties that could be abandoned as a reward for getting the jab. By September 2022, President Biden himself went on 60 Minutes and declared that “the pandemic is over.

 

In an age where political leaders rarely get much credence from their audiences, such messages were well received by a public desperately looking for a way to deny their own vulnerability, and to be told convincingly that the worst was over. By May of 2023 only 24 percent of Americans were “very concerned” about the coronavirus according to Morning Consult polling, down from a peak of 65 percent in April of 2020. Yet while the administration’s stance that COVID is over may have been politically expedient, it also set us up for a basically endless cycle of surges and retrenchments, each time swallowing thousands of lives and leaving thousands others scarred and disabled, but now with the added dissonance of staunch insistence by public officials that it’s all quite manageable. By September of 2023, weekly COVID hospitalizations in the US had risen to 20,000 for the first time since March, and yet demand for the newly updated boosters is so low that it’s causing serious business problems for Moderna.

 

Now, for all its work diagnosing the problem of death denial, Becker’s book is less clear about how to rectify or resolve it. “For man not everything is possible,” he resigns, and “the most one can achieve is a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience that makes him less of a driven burden on others.” Indeed, in its conclusion, The Denial of Death seems content to urge us to “take life seriously,” which means “that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.” Still, this doesn’t help us really understand the urge to move past COVID-19. Is that urge simply an acknowledgement of the terror of all creation, or is the failure to adequately protect oneself a kind of denial that such terror even exists?

 

These questions point to the ultimate problem with Becker’s approach to death denial, which is in a sense, the same as the problem with America’s approach to the pandemic in general. It is individualistic. Assuming it is true that there is some fundamental terror of death motivating all of us, there are also countless examples of people being motivated by outside influences to overcome this fear, from soldiers on the battlefield to terminally ill hospice patients. Becker did at times acknowledge such influences. But the point is that social structures can guide us towards healthier and happier ways of thinking through death, and those structures often accomplish this when they push us to understand ourselves as part of a collective, whether that is a family, community, or even a platoon. I don’t think this is always attributable to some kind of “transference” but simply to the fact that the terror of death tends to rise when modern individualism teaches us to think of ourselves as unique, atomized, isolated persons. And it likely falls when our institutions promote a sense of collective belonging instead. Phillippe Ariès once explained that the so-called “tame death” of the early Middle Ages, in which people died at home, surrounded by loved ones, with little panic or worry, was meant “to express the conviction that the life of a man is not an individual destiny but a link in an unbroken chain, the biological continuation of a family or a line that begins with Adam and includes the whole human race.” Such a perspective could not be further from our own today.



In this sense, one can see our current denial of COVID as more than just an inner flinching away from the abyss. It is also a prolonged backlash to the initial American response to the novel coronavirus—those two months or so that have come to be called “lockdown,” in which schools closed, people stayed home from work, and just about everyone masked up. For that brief moment, we were all actually looking out for one another, and the interests of everyday people were placed ahead of the interests of corporations who wanted nothing more than for us to get back to work. But people pulled together, tried to flatten the curve, tried to entertain each other and learn together using a makeshift set of online platforms and apps, even as we all feared for our lives. All of that required a fairly sobering assessment of the major new risk that our families and communities were facing. This sort of banding together is actually quite common when a disaster strikes; as Rebecca Solnit once wrote, “we don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.” But it was all too much for an individualistic, capitalist culture such as ours. Too many powerful institutions were shaken by these upended social norms, where suddenly the government did in fact owe us a basic standard of living, and sacrifice was shared between laborers and employers, tenants and landlords, the old and the young. Of course it couldn’t last, but every time someone tells us that we need to get back to normal, we ought to remember that this near-utopian moment of collective caring was the abnormal from which they wish to move away.

 

I don’t mean to look back on those frightening early days and weeks of the pandemic with rose-colored glasses—not everyone stayed home and stayed safe, thousands died alone in hospitals on ventilators and none of us knew how bad it was going to get. But it’s worth reiterating that, with well over a million dead in the US, and as many as 26 million dead across the globe according to a new Economist estimate, things basically did get as bad as they could have gotten. They simply did so in a way that prioritized big business at the expense of everyone else. And unless we change course, that is the way they’ll continue to go.

 

So when we wonder why so many people seem to be denying death today regarding COVID-19, I don’t think we ought to naturalize it the way that Becker’s psychological theory might lead us. There’s nothing inherent in human nature about ignoring an ongoing pandemic. There’s nothing natural about turning away from helping one another, and it’s important to remember that this wasn’t our first response. For a moment there, most of us looked death in the face, banded together to help ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities, and did the best that we could under harrowing circumstances. That moment may have passed now, but let us at least not deny that it happened.                 


Timothy Recuber is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Smith College. He is the author of The Digital Departed: How We Face Death, Commemorate Life, and Chase Virtual Immortality (2023, New York University Press) and Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster (2016, Temple University Press). Contact him at trecuber@smith.edu or @timr100. 




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