Attitudes Towards Death Assessment

OMEGA, Vol. 6(4), 1975
Jersey City State College
A positive relationship was hypothesized between acceptance of death, strength of
motivation, breadth of time perspective, and self-fulfillment in creative artists. This
hypothesis was based on the assumption that fear of death inhibits orientation
toward the future and thereby tends to restrict movement toward achievement and
self-fulfillment. By contrast, acceptance of death and awareness of one’s finitude is
thought to act as a galvanizing force, impelling one toward creativity and
accomplishment. interviews were conducted with ten individuals ranked as outstanding creative artists in their fields, and a control group of ten other
respondents. Findings in this preliminary study suggest some differences between
the two groups in the hypothesized direction.
The present study was based on the assumption that knowledge of death is
the mainspring of motivation and accomplishment. Feifel pointed to the
knowledge of finiteness as a galvanizing force, pushing man forward toward
creativity and accomplishment [ 13 . Kaufmann developed the thesis that once
a person accepts the fact that one must die-of the limited amount of time
at one’s disposal-it becomes a powerful incentive to make the most of being
here and now [2].
These statements imply a relationship between attitudes towards death,
motivation, accomplishment and level of self-fulfillment. The present exploratory study was undertaken to investigate these suggested relationships
[3]. It should be made clear that fear of and concern with death are not
identical attitudes. The opposite may even hold true. Thus, Montaigne wrote
Recent investigators have focused on fear, anxiety and concern about death
* Parts of the present study were reported at the annual meeting of the American Society
of Suicidology in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, in April 1974.
0 1976, Baywood Publishing Co.. Inc.
doi: 10.2190/5BPE-XGNJ-PBUW-YCM3
that the remedy against the fear of death of the “common herd” is not to
think about it. The result: they take fright at the mere mention of death. His
advice to combat it: “Let us have nothing on our minds as often as death . . . let us picture it in our imagination in all its aspects . . . Premeditation of
death is premeditation of freedom. He who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. Knowing how to die frees us from all subjection
and constraint [4] .” Feifel wrote that in gaining awareness of death we
sharpen and intensify our awareness of life [l] . One of the main themes in literature, existentialism and thanatology deals
with the paradox of man’s condition; on one hand, absolute determinism,
necessity, the irrevocable fdteness of existence, which results in universal fear
of death, and, on the other hand, possibilities of freedom from constraints,
creative accomplishments, self-fulfillment as a result of gaining awareness and
acceptance of death. Feifel pointed to a possible explanation of the seeming
contradiction: “The crisis is often not the fact of oncoming death per se, of
man’s insurmountable finiteness, but rather of the waste of limited years, the
unassayed tasks, the locked opportunities, the talents withering in disuse [l] .”
Ted Rosenthal, who at the age of thirty was told that he had acute leukemia
and was going to die, wrote: “I don’t think people are afraid of death. What
they are afraid of is the incompleteness of their life [5] .” This is in full
agreement with Kaufmann’s thesis referred to above. Montaigne [4] wrote:
“The advantage of living is not measured by length but by use; some men
have lived long and lived little . . . it lies in your will not in the number of
years. . . .” Very much the same thought is conveyed by Ted Rosenthal:
“. . . you can live a lifetime in a day; you can live a lifetime in a moment;
you can live a lifetime in a year . . .” [5]. It can be seen that the experience
of time cannot be separated from one’s attitude towards death.
Kastenbaum and Aisenberg remarked that both hope and dread begin with
the appreciation of futurity as qualitatively different from “used” time [3].
They further raised the question whether apprehensions about death may be
one of the main factors in the tendency to rein in thoughts of “futurity” and,
if so, may it not also impair the ability to plan ahead, to anticipate both
hazards and opportunities.
enslave people, inhibiting their movements into the future, which would be
manifested in a restricted time perspective, and if greater awareness and
acceptance of death frees them for creative accomplishment and selffulfillment.
relieved by repression or denial of death, which means also repression of
futurity, which may preclude any movement towards achievement and
self-fulfillment; while, in the second case, tension created by the awareness of
one’s finiteness of the limited time available, may act as a galvanizing force,
pushing towards creativity and accomplishment.
The question that presents itself is then, whether fear of death does indeed
It seems plausible to assume that in the first case tension created by fear is
If, furthermore, fear of death is indeed fear of the incompleteness of one’s
life, of not having fulfilled one’s potentials, then Kaufmann may be correct in
saying: “But once what I am bent on, what is Holy . . . is accomplished, once
I have succeeded in achieving-in the face of death, in a race with death-a
project that is truly mine and not something that anybody else might have
done as well . . . then the picture changes: I have won the race and in a sense
have triumphed over death. Death . . . comes too late [2] .”
The foregoing statements point to a sequence of events, which can be outlined thus: awareness of one’s finitude which creates tension (or fear), which
in turn provides the motivation to achieve something uniquely one’s own. If
one succeeds in achieving it, the fear of the incompleteness of one’s life, and
with it the fear of death has been conquered.
It is difficult to formulate an hypothesis on the basis of this sequence
because it describes a hypothetical or conceptual model rather than an
empirical one. As long as one is alive, life may always be experienced as incomplete. This point may be made clearer if we consider a related
phenomenon in the natural sciences. Ehrenberg the biologist, formulated a
principle which states that the essence of life is structurization [6]. Life has
fulfilled its function when all unstructured potential is converted into
structures. Once structurization has reached its limit, death occurs, since any
further life processes are impossible. In the psychological realm complete
structurization would mean the actualization of all one’s potentials, that is,
reaching self-fulfillment. But can man ever exhaust his potentials? Browning’s
line in Andrea del Sarto “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp . . .”
seems to reflect the human condition of forever striving for something just
beyond the accomplished, a need to transcend the given, that can never be
fully satisfied. Thus, though total self-fulfillment may be an ideal goal that
perhaps no one has ever attained, one may still postulate a positive relationship between degree of self-actualization and relative success in coming to
terms with death.
Following this line of reasoning, a positive relationship is hypothesized
between acceptance of one’s own death, strength of motivation, breadth of
time perspective and level of self-fulfdment . The hypothesis contains two implicit assumptions:
1. Experienced self-fulfillment is a function of successfully actualizing one’s
potentials, which is manifested in objective achievement.
2. Strength of motivation can be inferred from high levels of accomplishment, if the accomplishment demands rigorous work and discipline
over extended time periods.
Method and Rationale
To test the hypothesis empirically, ten top-level artists, in a field
demanding creativity and discipline, and a control group of ten respondents,
closely matching the artists in all but the creativity dimension, were interviewed. Of the ten artists, six are performing musicians and four are visual
artists. Table 1 describes the samples. All interviewees were upper-middle class
male. The artists’ ages range from thirty-seven to sixty-eight, with a median
age of fifty-five; those of the control group respondents from forty to sixtyfive, with a median age of fifty.
The choice of accomplished artists for the experimental group was based on
the following reasons:
1. The fact that the death theme runs through all forms of artistic
creativity as a major leitmotiv attests to the artist’s preoccupation with death,
and to his need to come to terms with it. To interpret or symbolize death
requires introspection as well as externalization, implying actively dealing with
the concept of the reality of death. On this basis alone, a systematic investigation
of attitudes towards death of creative artists promises to be a fruitful one.
A number of studies have been concerned with the death theme in art and
with attitudes towards death of great artists, as inferred from their works of
art or from biographical or autobiographical notes [7-91. Most of these studies
were done from a historical perspective. To my knowledge, there has been no
previous empirical research on this topic, with living artists as the experimental group.
Table 1. Description of Experimental and Control Group
Group Age Profession National Origin
Artists 68
pai nter/scul ptor
47 sculptor American
Control 65 real estate manager German
insurance broker
stock broker
40 teacher American
2. To be recognized as a great artist implies that one has accomplished
something uniquely one’s own, as well as having reached a relatively high level
of actualizing one’s potentials. However, this does not imply that similar
tendencies may not also be found in other individuals, such as in less successful artists or people who excel in other fields. In this respect, the choice of
the experimental group simply follows the common practice of preliminary
research, which investigates those cases which are most likely to fall on the
extreme end of the hypothesized continuum.
3. The motivation-accomplishment level can be assessed by objective
criteria. This was done by contacting only those artists who have been
evaluated by professionals and critics in their own field as belonging to the
top ten artists in that field. An added requirement for selection of musicians
was to be presently performing as soloists in the major concert halls here and
abroad, and for the visual artists, to have works on permanent exhibition in
reputable museums or galleries.
An interview schedule with open-ended and specific questions and a
semantic differential scale were devised by the author, aimed at tapping
strength of motivation, level of self-fulfillment, breadth of time perspective,
fear, preoccupation and general attitude towards death. Table 2 presents an
outline of the questionnaire.
Each respondent was interviewed individually, in his own home or office.
Interviews ranged from thirty-five to ninety minutes.
The first two questions deal with goals and motivation. All the artists
answered these questions in essentially the same way. Long term goals had
been set for them in early childhood (usually by their parents), and they
never questioned them. They could not say how far they were willing to go or
to sacrifice to attain their goal, since it was inconceivable to let anything
interfere with it. Their work is their life and is not experienced as a sacrifice.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two groups, with respect to
goals and motivation, is that all the artists interviewed indicated that they
are intrinsically motivated, experiencing every step as an end in itself. The
control group respondents seem to be extrinsically motivated; they expressed
willingness (or unwillingness) to make limited amount of sacrifices (work,
study) to achieve limited goals. The artists further expressed great satisfaction
with what they have achieved, but (with the exception of one), they almost
seemed to shun the assertion of having attained self-fulfillment. They see it as
the end, indicating that once one has reached that point there remains
nothing left to say.
The third question deals with phenomenal experience of time. Four of the
ten artists interviewed said that they could not make a distinction among past,
Table 2. Outline of Questionnaire
Open Ended Questions Specific Questions
Goal in Life
Conscious time
Time perspective
as related to
death attitude
What do you see as height of fulfillment? What do you want out
of life?
How far would you be willing to
go (sacrifice1 to achieve your
How do you experience time?
Do you focus on the past,
present or future most?
Expectation: how long do you
expect to live?
What is your preference regarding time of death?
If, after you died you could
come back once, when would
YOU chose to come back?=
If you could visit the past-before your birth, which period
would you chose?a
If you create a masterpiece,
would you prefer recognition
now or in distant future?’
Complete the story: Joe has
a cup of coffee in a restaurant.
He is thinking of the time to
come when.. . . . . . . Are you afraid of death? Why?
How often do you think about
your own death?
achieve highest level of functioni ng; creating, understanding ,
finding meaning
fame, recognition, wealth, power
good family life, material comforts
present most important-no
sacrifices for future
postpone daily pleasures
complete abstinence until goal
willing to die earlier
nostalgic about time past; living
mostly in past; wishing to bring
back past
appreciation, emphasis on present;
past only important as it affects
present; wanting to hold on,
extend present
eager anticipation, planning for
future; indifferent about future;
tense about future
overwhelming awareness of time
passing-of limits of time
relatively short time left
no intuition
in old age
ready (willing) to die, anytime
before I get old
in old age; the later the better
two years after your death
ten years after your death
100 years after your death
1,000 years after your death
2-10 years before your birth
around 1900
1,000 readers (spectators) now
1,000 readers in a 100 years
1700-1 900
more than once a week
once a week
once a month
hardly ever __~ – ~ ~ ~~~
a Required specific answers.
present and future. These people experienced the present as embracing past
and future. Four emphasized both, present and future, and two felt that they
were overwhelmingly present oriented. The past was the least important
category. None of the interviewees in the control group mentioned the experience of “unity” or “totality” of time. Four said that they were primarily past
oriented (lived in the past; wished they could bring back the past); one focused
equally on past and future, while the other five emphasized the present.
In cases where two categories (present and future or past and future) were
chosen, only the more dominant one was scored; this was determined by
additional answers given in the interview. The chi square test indicates significant differences between the two groups on the time perspective dimension
(x2 = 11.08, df = 3, p .02).’
Responses to questions four and five, regarding expected and preferred
longevity, did not indicate any differences between the two groups, and were
only used to analyze intra-personal consistencies.
The next two specific questions (six and seven) were devised to tap time
perspective and attitude towards death on a subconscious (phantasy) level.
The interviewees were asked to imagine that after they died they could come
back once, for a short period of time. When would they choose to come
a. two years after their death,
b. ten years after their death,
c. 100 years,
d. 1,000 years after their death?
Since a positive relationship between accomplishment and time perspective is
hypothesized, it was expected that the more extended time intervals would
be chosen by artists, and narrower intervals by the control group respondents.
The two-to-ten-year choice was furthermore conceived as indicating a negative
attitude (non-acceptance) towards death-a wish to hang on, or prolong life.
Four of the artists gave an unexpected reply: they did not want to come back
at all. Explanations for this choice were the following: this life was completely
fulfilling-it was all they wanted-not interested to see what happened after
their life had ended. One-said: “Apres moi le deluge.” Two chose one
thousand years and three chose one hundred years (giving “curiosity of what
the world will be like” as the reason for their choice). Only one chose to
return ten years after his death (to see continuation of the family).
how the family they left behind was making out). Three of the six said that
Six of the interviewees in the control group chose two-to-ten years (to see
’ Since the data were scored into qualitatively distinct categories and each individual response contributed only one single entry in a frequency table, the chi square test seemed to
be the most appropriate to obtain some indication as to whether the two groups differed
significantly. Because of the small sample (N 20), the results are best considered as tentative.
if they had a free choice, it would be much sooner-a few days after their
death. The reasons given were: not wanting to die at all-seeing their own
funeral-seeing how others take their death. Four chose one hundred years
(curiosity of what the world will be like). All wanted to come back; none
chose one thousand years. Difference between the two groups are significant
at the .05 level. (x2 = 7.66, df = 2; see Footnote 1.)
The second specific question deals with the choice of visiting a past period
before they were born:
1. two-to-ten years before their birth,
2. around 1900,
4. antiquity,
5. other.
3. 1700-1900,
The rationale for this question was the same as for the one above. Here again,
half (five) of the respondents in the artist’s group replied that they did not
want to visit any past period. Their attitude towards the past ranged from
strongly negative to disinterested. Two chose the Renaissance, two antiquity,
and one 1700-1900. None chose two-to-ten years before his birth. Three respondents of the control group chose two-to-ten years before their birth (to
see their relatives); two chose antiquity and five chose 1700-1900. All control
respondents did want to visit the past. The two groups differed at the .02
level (x2 = 8.32, df = 2; see Footnote 1.)
and question nine, the story completion, were used only to evaluate intrapersonal consistencies in time perspective. Such overall consistencies were
observed with most of the respondents.
Question ten deals with conscious fear of death. The interviewees were
asked, “Are you afraid of death?” This is an open-ended question and in cases
where the respondent replied only with “yes” or “no” he was asked the
reason for his reply. The answers were classified into three categories: no fear,
moderate fear or fear. Seven responses of artists indicated no fear, one
moderate and two fear of death. Three responses of control group interviewees
indicated no fear, four moderate and three fear of death. Though there was a
tendency for artists to express less fear than the control group respondents,
answers to this question were generally ambiguous and any inferences drawn
from them must be considered as tentative.
The two groups did not differ significantly in their response to the last
question, on preoccupation with death: “HOW often do you think about your
own death?” Five artists indicated low, three moderate and two high preoccupation with death. Seven respondents of the control group indicated low
and three high preoccupation with death. Fear of death and preoccupation
with death were found to be orthogonal, with all the possible combinations
Question eight, dealing with preference for recognition now or in the future,
occurring (fear-high preoccupation; fear-low preoccupation; low fear-high
preoccupation, etc.).
or negative attitudes towards death and towards life. The oppositional adjectives, identical for the death and life scale were the following: cruel-kind;
solitary-united; desperate-joyful; unfair-fair; violent-gentle; common,
public-exclusive , private; dull-stimulating; chaotic-harmonious; worthlessvaluable. Each pair was rated on a 7-point scale. An index of positive or
negative attitude was derived by subtracting negative from positive scores.
None of the artists had an overall negative score on the death scale, which
may be interpreted as an indication of a relatively positive attitude
(acceptance) toward death. Three of the control group respondents had an
overall negative score on the death scale. All interviewees had overall positive
scores on the life scale.
The semantic differential scales were devised as indicators of overall positive
Some of the most interesting aspects of the interviews stem from unexpected responses and attitudes, which also revealed remarkable homogeneity
in the artist sample. There was a general reaction against the constraints
imposed by forced-choice questions. Thus, when faced with specific questions,
such as choosing between past, present, future, the artists showed a tendency to
break through or ignore the imposed categories and express their own,
intuitive feelings. Another intra-group consistency was their disinterest in their
own past, especially remarkable since almost all of the artists mentioned that
they have had “a good life.” There are some indications that the more positive
a person evaluates his past, the less he is attached to it or feels the need to
hang on to it; while the opposite seems to hold true for those who have a
negative evaluation of their past. (This observation, by the way, is analogous
to the attitude towards death, postulated above: the more positive one
evaluates life, the more acceptable is death.)
One of the unexpected responses given by several artists, namely, not
wanting to come back after their death (or return to a period before their
birth) is of special interest here. While any expression of experienced fulfillment was avoided when directly confronted with the question, it found
expression on a “gut-reaction level,” when giving reasons for not wanting to
come back: “this life was fulfilling-it was complete-there was no need for
anything more.” On this level, the assumption of a positive relationship
between self-fulfillment and acceptance of death was confirmed almost
verbatim by the experimental group, and also by the control group
respondents, when stating why they wanted to come back two years after
their death (or sooner): this life was not complete-there was an expressed
need to hang on to it-even after death.
The outcome of the interviews lends support to the hypothesis of a positive relationship between acceptance of one’s own death, breadth of time
perspective and level of achievement and self-fulfillment. However, because of
the small sample and other limitations discussed below, the present study
must be considered as an exploratory one, aimed primarily at raising questions
and hopefully stimulating further research in this area.
art-creativity dynamics are responsible for the apparent differences in the
attitudes toward time and death, or if the same tendencies would be observed
in individuals who excel in other fields. The indications are that the creativity
dimension is the important factor in the observed differences between the
artist and the control groups; the control group consisted of relatively successful individuals who differed from the experimental group chiefly along the
art-creativity dimension.
The study does not reveal whether or not the same results would have
been obtained with creative non-artist respondents, i.e., creative scientists.
Some of the issues raised in the literature on art and death are relevant here.
One recurring theme deals with artistic creations as the product of the
artist’s struggle to find meaning in the human condition, in the struggle to
come to terms with the reality of death [7, 10, 111. In a discussion of the
Romantic artists who could express and purge their inward tragedy in an art
form, Alvarez remarked about Nerval’s suicide, “He was one of the very few
writers who finally acted out the Romantic agony to its logical end 171. The
rest contented themselves with writing about it.” After interviewing creative
scientists and artists, Rosner and Abt concluded that literary creations are
generally autobiographical in one way or another and, in that sense, selfexpression is seen most directly [12]. The implication is that artists can
express their thoughts and feelings directly in their work. Thus, they can write
about death, represent death in painting, symbolize or interpret it in music,
dance, etc.
the opposite can be said about the content of science, where the ideal
condition requires detachment rather than subjective involvement with the
subject matter. According to Archibald MacLeish, science deals in abstractions
while poetry deals with real things. However, Rosner and Abt found great
similarities between creative artists and creative scientists in their reported
experiences of the creative process, as well as in their general attitudes [12].
Unfortunately, attitudes towards death were not explored. An empirical study
of creative scientists along the dimensions investigated here is now in progress.
A somewhat related theme recurring in the literature on art and death
revolves around the connection between what one creates, including how one
represents death, and how one reflects on death. Both are said to reveal an
artist’s personality (most importantly his defenses), and the environment in
One of the issues that needs to be further investigated is whether the
Expression of these innermost feelings are the very content of art. Almost
which he lives [8, 91. To represent death through art, to be able to transform
or recreate death, is a way of doing actively what one has to suffer passively.
This, according to Eissler is man’s paramount ambition [13]. Referring to
Picasso’s style as epitomizing the will to transform, Gottlieb believes that this
will is based on a profound awareness of the necessity of active participation
in life [9]. These reflections suggest that the art-creativity dynamics must
profoundly affect one’s attitude toward death.
Since the experimental group is composed of performing and visual artists,
it should be pointed out that any distinction between them on the basis of
creativity would be arbitrary, and thus has not been made here. All the artists
interviewed hlfd the conditions for “creativity” as defined here by the
following criterion: a basic idea or conception which must be embodied in
articulate form (i.e., literary, musical, visual); the product thus embodied
must have uniqueness as well as excellence. This criterion closely matches Sir
Cyril Burt’s four phases of the “creative act [14] .” Referring specifically to
the performing artists interviewed in this study, the musicologist George
Jellinek’ remarked that out of hundreds of excellent musicians with outstanding expertise and technique only a small percentage become soloists, and of
these only an infinitesimal number rank among the greatest performing artists.
The difference is the creative spark or genius these few possess. They interpret
or re-create works of art in a fashion as to give them their own unique stamp.
creation. For all their technical perfection innumerable paintings and
sculptures in museums and galleries do not reflect the uniqueness of a great
artistic creation. Perhaps the most obvious case in point is modern photography. There is no doubt that some works are the expression of great
artistic creativity, though the medium lends itself to a purely technical
representation of the given. Thus, it is not the medium by which creative
artists can be distinguished from those skilled in a disciplineFthat is
technicians, but how the medium is used.
could be recruited for the experimental group. None of the female artists
contacted agreed to an interview. The difficulty in making contact with
performing artists sheds some light on the pervasiveness of the death taboo.
(Though in all fairness it should be pointed out that an interview on any
topic would have been hard to obtain, with this illustrious group of people.)
Interestingly, every time I succeed in establishing a direct contact with the
artist by telephone, I obtained the interview. However, when their wives or
agents acted as intermediaries, without exception the request for an interview
was turned down. In many cases the specific reason was given, that the artist
had to be protected from being exposed to a topic which may have an
One may also argue that visual art is predominantly imitation or reA serious limitation of the study is the fact that only male respondents
Personal communication. George Jellinek is a music critic and music director of the
New York Times radio station, WQXR.
upsetting effect. (There seemed to be a subtle implication, that upsetting
some kind of precarious balance may endanger their creativity.) None of these
fears was ever voiced by the artists themselves, and in almost every case they
commented that they had enjoyed the discussion.
positive scores on the semantic differential scales, of both, experimental and
control group respondents. Preliminary inspection of semantic differential
scores, from studies now in progress suggests that age and socio-economic
class belongingness are the most decisive determinants for positive or negative
One additional observation seems noteworthy, regarding the overwhelmingly
1. H. Feifel, Attitudes Towards Death in Some Normal and Mentally I11
Populations, in H. Feifel, (ed.), The Meaning of Death, McGraw Hill, N.Y.,
2. W. Kaufmann, Existentialism and Death, in H. Feifel, (ed.), The Meaning of
Death, McGraw Hill, N.Y., 1965.
3. R. Kastenbaum and R. B. Aisenberg, The Psychology of Death, Springer,
N.Y., 1972.
4. M. de Montaigne, That to Philosophize is to Learn How to Die, The
Complete Essays of Montaigne, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, Calif.,
5. T. Rosenthal, How Could Z Not be Among You?, George Braziller, N.Y.,
6. R. Ehrenberg, Theoretische Biologic, Springer, Berlin, 1923.
7. A. Alvarez, The Savage God, Random House, N.Y., 1970.
8. H. Bloom, Death and the Native Strain in American Poetry, Social Research,
9. C. Gottlieb, Modern Art and Death, in H. Feifel, (ed.), The Meaning of
39:3, pp. 449-462, 1972.
Death, McGraw Hill, N.Y., 1965.
E. Wyschorgrod, (ed.), The Phenomenon ofDeath, Harper & Row, N.Y.,
(ed.), The Phenomenon of Death, Harper & Row, N.Y., 1973.
10. R. Lamont, The Double Apprenticeship: Life and the Process of Dying, in
1 1. B. Nelson, The Games of Life and the Dances of Death, in E. Wyschorgrod,
12. S. Rosner and L. E. Abt, The Creative Experience, Grossman, N.Y., 1970.
13. K. R. Eissler, The Psychiatrist and the Dying Patient, Int. Univ. Press, N.Y.,
14. C. Burt, Foreword, in A. Koestler, The Act of Creation, Macmillan, N.Y.,
Address reprint requests to:
Lid Marburg Goodman, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Jersey City State
College, Jersey City, N.J. 07305

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