Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Why does modern culture avoid thinking about death (and sleep)? Surely the reason is obvious

We use the word 'death' as if it has an agreed meaning, but it does not.

For mainstream modern secular culture, death merely means the complete cessation of existence - which is not a very interesting subject. So it is unsurprising that moderns do not think much about death: what is there to think about?


But death means extremely different things to different people at different times in history. For example, modern people are amazed or appalled by the Ancient Egyptian's 'obsession' with death - those mummies, pyramids, statues... their most famous title is probably The Egyptian Book of the Dead.

We wonder how and why they could be fascinated by such a subject! - it seems to us like an avoidance of life.

But of course 'death' for Egyptians was a completely different thing - it was the Dwat (also spelled Duat) which was the origin of everything, as well as the terminus of everything. It was the realm of the unseen - of essences, spirits, gods, the sleeping soul - the residence of those who had 'died' and those yet to be born.

The Dwat was reality - more real than this world: knowledge of the Dwat was power.

So, by modern standards, Ancient Egyptian 'death' was more like our idea of 'real life'. How utterly misleading to assume that death-then was like death-now.


It is not surprising that modern people avoid thinking and talking about death - modern death is a fact with implications; but really it is of little interest.

In a smaller way, the same applies to that foretaste of death - sleep. Modern Western culture is less interested in sleep than any other culture I have ever heard of; and this is utterly unsurprising since we regard sleep purely negatively. Lack of sleep can make us feel bad, and function badly - but aside from this biological 'need', sleep is of no interest.

We nowadays regard dreams as meaningless epiphenomena - or, at most, diagnostic signs of some kind of personal mental ailment. (Most of the sleep researchers have been psychiatrists!) A few people are interested in lucid dreams - but only as a kind of thrill - a private movie theatre, as it were.


But past societies (and modern non-Western societies) believed that all sorts of extremely interesting and important things happened during sleep.

We might get messages or revelations from the divine, or might spiritually travel to other places or other realities - there to have experiences impossible during waking times. Most societies have believed in prophetic dreams (indeed, unofficial folk culture still does - even in the West).

Indeed, it has not been unusual for people to regard the world of sleep as more real and more important than the waking world. There have been 'sleep specialists' - such as some types of shamans - in some societies.

So, the unimportance and uninteresting nature of death and sleep to moderns is unsurprising, given what we think they are.


And thereby modern culture has eliminated the significance of most of human life - eliminated the positive and unique value of 1/3 of our mortal existence; eliminated the significance of those who have died and our lives after deaths; eliminated the importance of the unseen and invisible.

And - having performed this hatchet job of destruction against most of existence and reality - modern people then complain that their lives are shallow and meaningless!