Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Semantics of Death and Dying: Metaphor and Mortality

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

The Semantics of Death and Dying: Metaphor and Mortality

Article excerpt

In his The Encheiridion or "Handbook," stoic philosopher Epictetus speaks repeatedly of the importance of keeping death and dying in one's consciousness. Being aware of the reality of death is emphasized by Epictetus, who suggests that the individual, "Let death and exile and everything that is terrible appear before your eyes every day, especially death," as doing so will prevent "anything contemptible in your thoughts," as well as "craving anything excessively." (p.16) The philosopher does not, however, reserve his discourse only for the matter of when death is contemplated, but also offers advice on how such contemplation should take place. He states:

Did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. How does the way the giver asked for it back concern you? As long as he gives it, take care of it as something that is not your own, just as the travelers treat an inn. (p.14)

In suggesting the use of "given back" as a metaphor for death, Epictetus brings to light several points regarding the nature of our conception of death and dying, which neither he, nor other investigators of death, seem to have taken any further: he recognizes the role of metaphor in providing a foundation for our understanding of the "unknown"; he recognizes these metaphors as culturally constructed, and culturally reinforced; finally, and perhaps most importantly, he realizes that these metaphors, since they are our own creations, may be replaced when they no longer offer us the increased understanding, or at least reduced perplexity, which they are intended to provide.

Epictetus was on to something. However, it would appear that he, as well as much of the world's thinkers on death and dying, have not pursued his discovery further. In doing so it appears that they may have abandoned a critical factor in our personal and cultural understanding of death. They confuse, as in the ancient Zen saying, "A finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself."

The Name of Death - A Rose By Any Other Name

"Death is a displaced name for a linguistic predicament."

- Paul de Man (1919Y-83)

In his essay, "The Information Environment," cultural critic Neil Postman asserts: "The means by which people communicate comprise an environment just as real and influential as the terrain on which they live." (p.29) Perhaps this is a reason why many of the most prominent researchers/writers on the subject of death and dying have touched on the role of communication in the dying process. However, much of this discussion is limited to an interpersonal context, involving the family or caregivers in communication with the dying person. Researchers on death, or "thanatologists," often look to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross as a critical pioneer in advancing cultural acceptance of, and intellectual inquiry into, the nature of death and dying. In her groundbreaking work, On Death and Dying, Dr. Kubler-Ross is quite clear in her assessment of our culture's reservations when discussing mortality in general. This practice of refusing to discuss the topic of our own mortality may be symptomatic of our culture's overall discomfort with the topic as whole. "In a society where death is regarded as a taboo," asserts Dr. Kubler-Ross, "discussion of it is regarded as morbid, and children are excluded with the presumption and pretext that it would be 'too much' for them." (p.6) One cannot help but speculate that regardless of the prevailing attitudes which underlie such a semantic condition, the results of it are surely predictable. What is not discussed, and instead denied or avoided, is quickly removed or at the very least diminished, from our cultural consciousness. Whichever came first, the denial of death, or the refusal to speak of it freely, the situation we find ourselves in remains much the same.

Perhaps the most notable recent "ground breaking" addition to the field of thanatology has been the 1995 publication of Dr. …

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