The meaning of life in the face of death: historical and cultural factors



Lecture, followed by discussion. 45 minutes to one hour needed


In this paper I will hold the position that the meaning one finds in life in the face of death is a sell-creation but influenced by what Robert Kastenbaum calls «the death system».


A. What is the significance of the concept «meaning of life»? The history of philosophy and theology holds many views of the person. Plato defined the person as a «seeker after the good»; Aristotle and Descartes defined the person as a truth or knowledge seeker. Aquinas and the Medieval tradition thought of the person in his/her relationship to God. In later times William James defined the person primarily as a «project doer». What all of these views have in common is the understanding that the person is not on this planet merely to exhaust his/her allotment of time, but rather to do so consciously, thus creating meaning.

B. It is precisely in death, as Ernest Becker has so forcefully indicated, that one is confronted with the question of meaning. Death brings home to consciousness the feet that we do not have infinite time at our disposal. We realize that life may, indeed, pass us by and that in the determination of the focus, thus the criteria, of our [106] lives, we must create meaning or act consciously.

C. However, this creation of meaning does not occur in a vacuum. We find our meaning — we live our dying and bereaving, as our culture teaches us to do. These cultural parameters constitute the death system, the totality of the way we think, feel and act about death and death related things. This death system is constituted by our exposure to death, our anticipated life expectancy, our supposed control over the forces of nature, and our perception of the individual person's place in the universe.

D. The theoretician and the caregiver, then, must be conscious of the multitude of ways in which the individual person has been taught about death and bereavement and the way he/she processes that learning into self-definition.

John D, Morgan Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy


Center for Education about Death and


King's College

266 Epworth Avenue

London, Ontario


N6A 2M3

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