The Sting of Death

Why We Yearn for Eternity
Memento Mori, Francis van Eevenbrock

Many people today have the greatest difficulty finding a way to speak to our strongest feelings about death. Luc Ferry speaks of the “banalité du deuil” (the banality of grief) today. We very often feel awkward at a funeral, don’t know what to say to the bereaved, and are often tempted to avoid the issue if we can. At the same time, even people who otherwise don’t practice religion have recourse to religious funerals, perhaps because here at least is a language that fits the need for eternity, even if you’re not sure you believe all that. We don’t know how to deal with death, and so we ignore it as much and for as long as possible. We concentrate on life. The dying don’t want to impose their plight on the people they love, even though they may be eager, even aching, to talk about what it means to them now that they face it.

Doctors and others fail to pick up on this desire, because they project their own reluctance to deal with death onto the patient. Sometimes the dying will ask that their loved ones make no fuss over them, hold no ceremony, just cremate them and move on, as though they were doing the bereaved a favor in colluding in their aversion to death. The aim can be to glide through the whole affair smoothly and, as much as possible, painlessly, for both dying and bereaved-an ideal portrayed (with some ambivalence) in the film The Barbarian Invasions. The cost is a denial of the issue of meaning itself, something that can never be totally suppressed.

Sylvette Denèfle points out in her study of unbelievers in France (Sociologie de la Sécularisation, 1997) that the point of their “creed” hardest for them to hold to is the thought that there is no life after death. Half of her sample are unsound on this, one-quarter expressing the belief that something continues, and another quarter trimming. What is hardest of all for them is the death of loved ones. For death is one of the things that makes it very difficult to sustain a sense of the higher meaning of ordinary life, in particular our love relationships. It’s not just that these relationships matter to us a lot, and hence there is a grievous hole in our lives when our partner dies. It’s also that, because these relationships are so significant, they seem to demand eternity.

A deep love already exists against the vicissitudes of life, tying together past and present in spite of the disruptions and dispersals of quarrels, distractions, misunderstandings, resentments. By its very nature it participates in gathered time. And so death can seem a defeat, the ultimate dispersal that remains ungathered. Alle Lust will Ewigkeit (“all lust wants eternity”). I interpret Nietzsche’s famous line to mean not “we’re having such a good time, let’s not stop” but rather “this love by its nature calls for eternity.” It is significant that the salient feature of death today, the major drama around it, is this separation of loved ones. In L’homme devant la mort, Philippe Ariès has shown that it was not always so.

In the late medieval and early modern ages, the great issue was the judgment soon to be faced by the person dying. And before that, the dead were in a sense still in a sort of community with the living. So that Ariès distinguishes the periods under the titles: la mort de nous (“the death of us”), la mort de moi (“the death of me”), and la mort de toi (“the death of you”). Precisely because hell has faded, but love relationships are central to the meaning of our lives, the death we live with the greatest anguish today is la mort de toi. Now the implication of much atheist discussion of Christian or, in general, religious ideas of eternal life is that it is another facet of the childish attitude that takes its wishes for reality, and that growing up means abandoning this. Death is final (“an eternal sleep,” in the words of a French revolutionary de-Christianizer). We have to start from here in order to direct our attention to this world and to making it fit for humans. This dismissive attitude often assumes that our desire for eternity is simply a desire not to have our lives stop.

It is this kind of desire that the famous Epicurean reasoning is supposed to still: as long as you’re aware of the problem, you’re alive; when you’re dead, it will no longer be a problem for you. But there is something shallow about this understanding of what’s wrong with death. If we could separate happiness as a thing of the moment from any meaning, then we could enjoy some great moments now, and pass on to some other great moments later-rather as we enjoy good meals. Maybe in the old days, there was another kind of cuisine. We regret mildly its passing. But there is good food now, so let’s tuck in. But that’s just the problem. The deepest, most powerful kind of happiness, even in the moment, is plunged into a sense of meaning. And the meaning seems denied by certain kinds of ending. That’s why the greatest crisis around death comes from the death of someone we love. Alle Lust will Ewigkeit-not just because you might want it to go on and on, as with any pleasant experience; rather, all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn’t last. And when you look back on your life together, those happy moments, those travels in the sun, were bathed in the awareness of other years, other travels, which seemed to come alive in the present one.

This is the Great Return, the real ewige Wiederkehr: not just the recurrence of something similar, but the return of what was undying in that moment. This is what Proust seems to reach for, not just the recall of what is lost forever. But even just holding in memory is akin to keeping the time alive-even more if you can write about it, capture it in art. Art aspires to a certain kind of eternity, to be able to speak to future ages. But there are also other lesser modes or substitutes for eternity. One can make the eternal be the clan, the tribe, the society, the way of life. And your love, and the children who come from it, have their place in the chain; as long as you have preserved, or better enhanced, that tribe or way of life, you’ve handed it on. In that way, the meaning continues. This just shows how joy strives for eternity, even if all that is available is a lesser form of it, and even if something is left out that matters to us highly individuated moderns, as the particular things that meant most to us are gradually lost in the general impact we’ve made. And of course, this eternity can’t preserve those who are really forgotten, or those who haven’t left their mark, or those who have been damned, excluded. There is no general resurrection in this “eternity” of grateful posterity. This is what exercised Walter Benjamin, the unfilled need to rescue those who were trampled in history.

Now all this doesn’t show that the faith perspective is correct. It just shows that the yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is portrayed to be. “And so what?” many will say. Doesn’t the fact that this is a serious, unstillable longing just show up even more the courage you need to be a clear-sighted atheist? Perhaps, but it also shows how the yearning for eternity reflects an ethical insight, the one expressed in the Nietzschean phrase, which could also be put negatively: Death undermines meaning. Something important is lost when one forgets this. There is, after all, a kind of cross pressure here. The Epicurean answer copes with (some facets of ) la mort de moi, but not at all with la mort de toi, or with the death of meaning. The connection of death with meaning is reflected in two often-discussed features of human life as we understand it today. The first is the way in which facing death, seeing one’s life as about to come to an end, can concentrate the issue of what we have lived for. What has it all amounted to? In other words, death can bring out the question of meaning in its most acute form. This is what lies behind Heidegger’s claim that an authentic existence involves a stance of Sein-zum-tode, being-toward-death. The second is the way that those bereaved, or left behind, struggle to hold on to the meaning they have built with the deceased, while (unavoidably) letting go of the person. This is what funeral rites have always been meant to do, whatever other goals they have served. And since a crucial way of doing this is to connect this person, even in his death, with something eternal, or at the very least ongoing, the collapse of a sense of the eternal brings on a void, a kind of crisis. This we see today. The prospect that the person who has died is called to an eternal life, “in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection,” is either denied or held in a kind of uncertain suspense by those close to him. And yet other kinds of continuing reality may not be really meaningful to him and his mourners. The ongoing political society, for instance, will certainly do for the deceased statesman, the continuing life of our town for the departed mayor. But many people were not connected in that way to these levels of society; they lived within them relatively unknown and didn’t feel closely bound to them. It’s not clear what ongoing reality we can latch on to. There is a sense of void here, and of deep embarrassment.

Our world is ideologically fragmented, and the range of positions, multiplied by the attractions of expressive individualism, is growing. There are strong incentives to remain within the bounds of the human domain, or at least not to bother exploring beyond it. The level of understanding of some of the great languages of transcendence is declining; in this respect, massive unlearning is taking place. The individual pursuit of happiness as defined by consumer culture still absorbs much of our time and energy, or else the threat of being shut out of this pursuit through poverty, unemployment, incapacity galvanizes all our efforts. All this is true, and yet the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it-in moments of reflection about their life, in moments of relaxation in nature, in moments of bereavement and loss, and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief. Although many individuals do so, and more still seem to on the outside, the unrest continues to surface. Could it ever be otherwise? The secular age is schizophrenic, or better, deeply cross-pressured. People seem at a safe distance from religion, and yet they are very moved to know that there are dedicated believers, like Mother Teresa.

The unbelieving world, well used to disliking Pius XII, was bowled over by John XXIII. A pope just had to sound like a Christian, and many immemorial resistances melted. Il fallait y penser. It’s as though many people who don’t want to follow want nevertheless to hear the message of Christ, want it to be proclaimed out there. The paradox was evident in the response to the late pope. Many people were inspired by John Paul’s public, peripatetic preaching about love, about world peace, about international economic justice. They are thrilled that these things are being said. But even many Catholics among his admirers didn’t feel that they must follow all his moral injunctions. And in an expressive, post-Durkheimian world, this is not a contradiction. It makes perfect sense. Such are the strange and complex conditions of belief in our age.

Published in the 2007-10-12 issue: 

Charles Taylor is professor emeritus of philosophy at McGill University and winner of the 2007 Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities. Among his many books are Sources of the Self and The Ethics of Authenticity.

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