Mortality Salience and End-of-Life Planning Avoidance

Sep 12, 2014 | 0 comments

Funeral directors see it all the time – adults who nervously say, “I don’t need to come in and pre-plan my funeral just yet.” Even if we knew exactly when we would die, I doubt very many people would voluntarily go pre-plan their funeral without some compelling incentive.

Why is it so hard to get folks to do funeral planning, or any other end-of-life planning for that matter? The tendency to put off writing down advance medical directives, making a will, doing estate planning, or planning a funeral can be attributed to “Mortality Salience.”

Mortality Salience refers to the knowledge we humans have in our psyches that someday, we are going to die. We juxtapose the desire for self-preservation with the uniquely human awareness of the inevitability of our own deaths. This idea of no longer existing is terrifying.

So, we find a way to manage this terror. Hence, we have the Terror Management Theory.

Ernest Becker

Dr. Ernest Becker, author of The Denial of Death

Dr. Ernest Becker proposed the Terror Management Theory in his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death. Dr. Becker’s landmark treatise on cultural anthropology and social science looks at how the unconscious denial of mortality profoundly influences human behavior.

Becker said, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”

Humans, like other animals, want to stay alive and reproduce. Humans have the unique ability to use language and symbols to convey meaning with words and letters. So, humans are the only animal that projects thoughts forward into the future, reflects on the past, and wonders why we are here.

We use our intellect and self-esteem to control our world. We develop worldviews that give meaning to our lives and allow us to mentally transcend death. There have been approximately 600 studies conducted around the world over the past 25 years on the influence of the Terror Management Theory.

“Bringing death to mind changes the way people think,” said Dr. Tom Pyszczynski, one of the leading scholars of Dr. Becker’s work and a professor at the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs. He presented on “The Role of Death in Life: Implications for End Of Life Planning” at the 2014 Rendezvous of the Purposeful Planning Institute.

“The fact of death plays a very important role in life – some not so obvious and more impactful,” he added.

This idea of transcending death comes in two forms – literal and symbolic. Literal immortality comes to us through religious/spiritual concepts: a soul, heaven, reincarnation, collective consciousness and other forms of afterlife. Symbolic immortality comes through one’s legacy: offspring, valued achievements, awards, monuments, and identification with nations, movements, professions and such.

To stave off the terror of death, we “keep the faith” in a worldview of order, meaning, permanence and standards of significance. Self-esteem is the belief we are meeting our standards of significance.

Mortality Salience, those reminders of our mortality, make us intensify our efforts to bolster and defend our worldview and self-esteem. In other words, making someone aware that they are going to die will make them cling ever more tightly to their worldview. They become more of what they already are – such as loving and thoughtful, arrogant and argumentative, or afraid.

Funeral and estate planning is a big reminder of mortality. The strong tendency to avoid end-of-life planning is no surprise to funeral directors, medical professionals and attorneys.

Research suggests by getting clients to affirm their beliefs, values, self-esteem and relationships, this avoidance may be reduced. Taking concrete values-based steps to deal with mortality can help clients move beyond the denial of death.

“By getting people to think about what they value, who they love, and what they do well, it may increase their ability to plan,” said Pyszczynski.

Mortality Salience will always factor into people’s avoidance of end-of-life issues. They will seek to manage their fear by bolstering their worldview and self-esteem.

Finding meaning and self-value is a fairly universal quest. By affirming a client’s core values – expressing admiration and offering soothing praise – the client won’t need to defend his or her responses.

One funeral director posed the question, “Would you put your children in charge of planning your vacation?” You can step back and frame the question in terms of something a person would look forward to doing. Rather than remind them of death, you focus on a valued activity and the people they love.

When a person then considers the impact of leaving funeral decision-making up to his or her children, the conversation can shift beyond the denial of death. Using concern for the welfare of people and causes people care about can help reduce death anxiety and an avoidance response.

Gail Rubin, humorous motivational speaker for hospice

Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®

Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, brings a light touch to serious subjects as a speaker who uses humor and funny films to attract people to discuss mortality, end-of-life, estate and funeral planning issues. She is Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying and Bereavement by the Association for Death Education and Counseling. A pioneering Death Café hostess, she is author of the award-winning book and host of the TV and radio shows A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die.

A Good Goodbye