Facing death-6: The fear of being forgotten

Amanda Marcotte has some interesting speculations on the fear of death and lays the blame on human ego. She points out that many people cannot quite come to terms with the fact that after they die, they will cease to exist. More than that, they fear that their lives will not have even mattered and will not be remembered, and this can be a shattering blow to their egos.

When a person dies, their immediate family and friends grieve and feel a sense of loss, but even that dissipates with time. A few years after your death, people will cease to remember you except on rare occasions, and after a generation or two, no one will have a personal recollection of the dead person. How many people can recall their great-grandparents or even know their names? For many people, the gravestone or a mention in some archival document is the only indication that they existed at all.

This may be why people fear death so much. We want to feel that our lives matter. While we are alive, we can sustain that belief because we work, have friends and families, and other people depend on us for various things. But lurking behind is the fear: what if we die and no one really cares or even notices? After all, as has been famously said, the graveyards are full of people who were thought to be indispensable.

The times when I feel most strongly the insignificance of any one person’s life is when I am flying in a plane on a clear day and can see houses and moving cars below as distant specks. It makes me wonder what kind of lives those unseen people live. No doubt they feel they are living rich and full lives but almost the entire world is oblivious to their existence, just as they are oblivious to mine. While the people living those lives undoubtedly feel their lives matter, the truth is that they affect just a tiny part of the world for a tiny instant of time, and the rest of the world goes on happily ignorant of their existence. Nearly all the people who ever lived are now completely forgotten and it seems as if their lives did not matter in the least. Our lives are like ripples in a lake caused by a small stone, quickly dying away, leaving no visible trace they ever existed.

It seems as if it does not matter whether we had ever lived. The fact that our individual lives do not matter to almost everyone is so obvious that it is hard to understand why the idea that the world will still go on without us should be so disturbing to some. After all, the world existed just fine without us for billions of years before we were born. As Mark Twin is reported to have said as to why he did not fear death “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.” And yet, many people cannot seem to come to terms with the long view that equates their non-existence before birth with their non-existence after death. But once we have been born and are conscious of the fact that we exist, the thought of the world returning to a state of our own nonexistence seems somehow frightening.

This fear that our lives will cease to matter once we die is probably the driving force behind the popularity of religious ideas of the afterlife and heaven and all the other superstitions. This way people can still imagine themselves as active participants in events, still doing things, continuing to be relevant after their physical deaths. As writer Gore Vidal said, “You need a religion if you are terrified of death.” Of course, it helps to believe in heaven and a good life after death, but it seems to be more important to believe in any life at all.

One can see in this context why the idea of an eternal omniscient god is also appealing. A god who has existed and will exist for all time and knows everything is a god who knows about you personally. That means you will never be forgotten, at least by god. And since your soul also exists forever, you never really die. And since you matter to god, your life will always matter.

This is where religions have had their most pernicious influence. Religions have seized upon this vague unease with the idea of nonexistence and transformed it into actual fear and dread of death by inventing rewards and punishments, heaven and hell. They have replaced the certainty that after we die we cease to exist and instead created an unknown, uncertain, and thus frightening future. Then once that fear has been created, god is introduced to manipulate people into supporting the financial racket known as organized religion by pretending to allay those fears with soothing stories of an afterlife. So the ideas of god, the soul, and the afterlife can be thought of as inventions to manipulate people into accepting religion by first creating a fear of death (building upon a natural instinctive desire to avoid death) and then inventing ways to allay those fears.

As long as people fear death, it will be hard to get rid of religion and god. As Christopher Hitchens points out in his book God Is Not Great (2007, p. 247): “Sigmund Freud was quite correct to describe the religious impulse, in The Future of an Illusion, as essentially ineradicable until or unless the human species can conquer its fear of death and its tendency to wish-thinking. Neither contingency seems very probable.”


  1. says

    We’ll all be forgotten. Eventually, it will be as if our entire species never existed. The nature of the universe is such that leaving a mark on it is both impossible and pointless.

  2. Dunc says

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
    The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

    [Ozymandias -- Percy Bysshe Shelley]

  3. Scr... Archivist says

    One can see in this context why the idea of an eternal omniscient god is also appealing. A god who has existed and will exist for all time and knows everything is a god who knows about you personally. That means you will never be forgotten, at least by god. …. And since you matter to god, your life will always matter.

    Wow. I never thought about it that way, and it explains so much. Thank you for writing and sharing it!

  4. david73 says

    Perhaps the fear of accepting that there is no ‘ghost in the machine’ no immortal spirit explains why this society is unable to rationally discuss and treat the problems of mental health. There seems to be an underlying belief that in the severely depressed, demented or even ‘brain dead’ that this spirit is there, ready to take back control. I fear death much less than dementia.

  5. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    After thinking seriously about death I proposed a Mortal Imperative, as a complement to Kant’s Moral Imperative: To live properly, always behave in such a way that the largest possible number of people will express sorrow when they hear you have died.

  6. hyphenman says


    Shakespeare nailed the concept…

    To die- to sleep-
    No more; and by a sleep to say we end
    The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
    That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
    Devoutly to be wish’d.

    Now I’m going to go take a nap.


  7. Enkidum says

    I like being alive and I don’t want to stop living. Ever. Or at least not in any finite amount of time I can consider.

    I really, really, really like being alive. To the extent that I think it’s accurate to say that I fear death -- it’s not that I’m afraid of being dead, but I’m definitely afraid of not being alive, if you follow me.

    I think this is at least as strong a reason for the general fear of death as the desire not to be forgotten. Frankly I don’t care that much about other people remembering me, I want me to remember me -- I want to stay conscious.

    I think religion covers that fear as well, since most of them propose some form of eternal life.

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    More Shakespeare on mortality (from Cymbeline):

    Feare no more the heate o’ th’ Sun,
    Nor the furious Winters rages,
    Thou thy worldly task hast don,
    Home art gon, and tane thy wages.
    Golden Lads, and Girles all must,
    As Chimney-Sweepers come to dust.

    Feare no more the frowne o’ th’ Great,
    Thou art past the Tirants stroake,
    Care no more to cloath and eate,
    To thee the Reede is as the Oake:
    The Scepter, Learning, Physicke must,
    All follow this and come to dust.

    Feare no more the Lightning flash.
    Nor th’ all-dreaded Thunderstone.
    Feare not Slander, Censure rash.
    Thou hast finish’d Ioy and mone.
    All Louers young all Louers must,
    Consigne to thee and come to dust.

    No Exorcisor harme thee,
    Nor no witch-craft charme thee.
    Ghost vnlaid forbeare thee.
    Nothing ill come neere thee.
    Quiet consumation haue,
    And renowned be thy graue.

  9. Sandeep Aggarwal says

    I think the perspective that the world around you will forget you after your death becomes irrelevant in the context when its hard to dissipate from the self-consciousness of not being living an upbeat life.

  10. A person says

    I’ve been having thoughts and feelings that this article summed up beautifully and it’s not like Lot of other people’s definitions of the fear if it can be called a definition rather then a term that dose this more justice then my sleep deprived mind can think of at 4 am but I digress this article just completely sums up the fear and the aspects that I would guess alot of people like me have been feeling for a while now and I would like to thank the author so I can show this to people when they ask me about it and sorry if I come off as a generic attention horse but just felt I would contribute to the comment section and share my thoughts a bit even though no one wanted them

  11. dott says

    Even that unseen pebble once flicked away and sunk raises the lake, though the fraction be immeasurable men, even that unseen pebble once consumed by the vast black maw at the center of our universe may contain with itself a fleck, a speck, a microscopic grain of an immortal element.
    Even that unseen pebble, though by so many discounted, leaves behind it the risen lake…. and the footsteps down to the lake and back, and so much more in the memory taken with them.

  12. Memito says

    If people around the world have believed in something after death that’s maybe there’s something. What if “Soul” just means your conscience. If a bird, or a dog do not have at least some form of conscience there is nothing. But, there might be. If an animal has no “soul” neither do we. Whatever happens to a fish in the sea, or a bird in the sky will happen to us.

  13. Em says

    I came across this article whilst researching for a book that I am currently in the process of writing, which is all about the way in which stereotypical beliefs evolve, and then permeate societies. I was delighted to find others pondering similar themes to those which I wrestle with, on a daily basis.
    I am an atheist, or, rather, perhaps closer to a humanist, though I was raised in a religious family (Catholic background), was sent to a religious school as a child, and married into a family where my mother-in-law is a strident, evangelical born-again Christian of the most fundamentalist and obsessive kind imaginable.
    Personally, I cannot wrap my head around religion, at all. As Marx said, it truly is “the Opium of the masses”. All I see in it is a cult based upon fear, and forced obedience. That is not, to my mind, true belief. True belief does not have to be coerced, whether that be through fear of death, going to hell, meeting the devil, or whatever. Rather, what I see in organized religion is a totally manmade social construct, designed in order that some humans can wield power and control over others. It is also a money-making scheme (just look, for example, at the wealth of the Vatican, or of some Baptist ministers). Religion, to my eyes, works somewhat like a cross between a chain letter and a pyramid scheme. That is, it circulates via people who are constantly recruited to the cause of further circulating it (akin to the chain letter), whilst simultaneously creating its own hierarchy, with those at the top exploiting those at the lower levels (akin to a pyramid scheme).
    Humans likely have all manner of fears, any of which can be exploited. Just look at the way in which politicians exploit fear of terrorism to gain power. It is often hard to say definitively where these fears come from, and we should be careful to remember that humans are simultaneously both rational (i.e. thinking) and irrational (i.e. emotional) beings. Fear is a strong emotion, and thus easily harnessed in the service of things like religion and politics. However, the fear of dying may be more than just religiously fabricated. Instead, it may highlight one of the aspects of human terror of the unknown.
    Humans, you may have noticed, tend to be creatures that, in the absence of understanding, full knowledge, or answers to questions, become anxious and fearful. We like to think, both as individuals, and societally, that we are in the know, because this gives us some sense of control over our environment, and our destiny. The notion that we may not have control, or even full knowledge, is to some scary, because it means living in a state of uncertainty..
    The truth, and reality of life, is that there are some things that we may never know, like what happens when we die, and we simply have to accept this. There is no point fearing it, because the fear will not change it or make it any less so. It is true, as one reply so adroitly points out, that many people enjoy living, and so do not want that to end. I would admit that this argument applies as much to me, as it may to any other. However, in realistic terms, I know full well that this cannot happen, because life is finite. I also know that we all grow old, become frail and infirm, and it may well be that we perhaps reach a point when we have so little quality of life that it is actually kinder to pass away (this is why some horrifically disfigured and disabled people, and those with terminal illnesses seek euthenasia). I understand that is a controversial thing to say, but when I stop to think about it, I have to ask myself whether I would wish to remain living were I to find myself incontinent, unable even to wash and dress myself, suffering dementia, and so frail I could barely stand, or breathe. Perhaps we fear death whilst we still have a quality of life? If we were to ask several elderly, frail, sick individuals, and then to ask several fit, young, strong individuals, would their responses be the same? Or do we simply reach a point where our life is hanging so much by a thread as to be unsustainable, and so death comes as a merciful release? I cannot say, for I have not been there. And as far as I know, the dead have never come back to tell me about their experiences. So I can only speak for the living.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *