3 WHAT IS DEATH ANXIETY AND HOW PERVASIVE IS IT?
Innumerable commentators have considered that the awareness of death's inevitability is the central threat to experiencing a meaningful life. They portray the ability to anticipate one's death as the curse of being human and an inescapable marker of existential absurdity. Some, like Becker ( 1973) or Zilboorg ( 1943), saw every person as preoccupied with death anxiety and persistently defending against it with such strategies as simple denial, religious faith in immortality, exaggerated expectations of medical "cure," and the acting out of heroic "Nothing can terminate me" fantasies. Levinson, Darrow , Klein, Levinson, and McKee ( 1978) provided data indicating that by midlife it is normative for men to be confronted with making sense of their death, which looms up ahead. He stated:
At mid-life, the growing recognition of mortality collides with the powerful wish for immortality and the many illusions that help to maintain it. A man's fear that he is not immortal is expressed in his preoccupation with bodily decline and his fantasies of imminent death. At the most elemental level, he feels that he is fighting for survival. He is terrified at the thought of being dead, of no longer existing as this particular person. (p. 215)
The speculative literature is saturated with theories about the nature of death anxiety and how it influences people. We assign considerable priority to checking these theories, and to finding out what role the fear of death plays in human conduct and imagination. Let us be clear as to what we want to learn. Essentially, how great, on the average, is the impact of death anxiety? Is death anxiety pervasive? Is it truly a major source of tension for most individuals? Is it a substantial contributor to psychological disturbance in