Immortality, Symbolic

Among the numerous cultural mechanisms for allaying death's sting are envisionments for personal transcendence, such as resurrection, reincarnation, metempsychoses, or some disembodied spiritual existence. In addition to these relatively direct means for personal survival, there are more symbolic forms of immortality that exist. Collectively, there is the immortality obtained through assisting in the transmission of knowledge and precedent to succeeding generations; personally, the preservation of one's memory through eponym, legacy, photograph, or artistic creation. The holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel asked,

What does it mean to remember? It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call upon the future to illuminate it. It is to revive fragments of existence, to rescue lost beings, to cast harsh light on faces and events, to drive back the sands that cover the surface of things, to combat oblivion and to reject death. (Wiesel 1995, p 150)

Human beings live in two worlds: the natural and the symbolic. Ultimately governing human existence within both, according to thanatological determinists, are drives to transcend death. From the perspective of sociobiology, the central drive of the biological self is to pass on one's genetic code. Similarly, to counter death fears and the challenges death poses to the meaningfulness of existence, the symbolic self has a psychobiological drive to leave its mark and a psychological need to continuously feel there's something indestructible within itself.

Given that selfhood is a social phenomenon, negotiated through symbolic exchanges with others, this sense of personal immortality entails, according to psychiatrist Robert Lifton, the ability to symbolize one's own death and continuity thereafter. Death can, for instance, be perceived as but a transition, and one can "survive" through others' memories. And with this outlook, instead of expending life energies in death denials, like the art of karate where one uses the energy of one's adversary, the power of death is diverted to personal growth and social development as the living work on their postselves.

Just as the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's late-nineteenth-century model of the human pscyhe, based on the development of sexuality, arose during an era when sex was the great taboo, so Lifton's late-twentieth-century death-based psychological paradigm emerged from a culture of death denials and a world threatened by nuclear extinction. "While the denial of death is universal, the inner life-experience of a sense of immortality, rather than reflecting such denial, may well be the most authentic psychological alternative to that denial" (Lifton 1979, p. 13). Humans are the only creatures to be aware of their vulnerabilities and mortality, whose deadening imageries feature separation, disintegration, and stasis. To buffer themselves from the anxieties of such insights, these meaning-seeking primates employ the vitalizing imageries of connection, integrity, and movement through five distinct modes of experiencing that, according to Lifton, comprise the essence of symbolic immortality. These include the biological, spiritual, creative, natural, and mystic modes, whose traditional and contemporary forms are detailed in this entry.

Modes of Symbolic Immortality and Their Contemporary Variations

Genetic, or biological, immortality was undoubtedly the first mode grasped by the human primate. It involves the sense of connection with one's parents and familial generations past as well as the sense of personal continuity through one's progeny. Further, given the nature of one's bonds with nonfamilial groups, these feelings of connection with something greater than one's self can extend outward to include one's tribe, culture, and nation.

Modern science has added new ways to biologically transcend death, such as through organ transplants (where at least a portion of one's self remains alive), sperm banks (allowing for the genetic immortality of anonymous and deceased donors), and cloning. In April 1999 a California woman gave birth to a child sired by her deceased husband. What made this news (after all, women have been impregnated with frozen sperm of the dead since the early 1990s) was that her husband's sperm was extracted from his epididymis, upon her request, thirty hours after he had suddenly died from an allergic reaction.

Religious/spiritual conceptions of immortality range from the resurrection-based beliefs of Christianity to the cycles of rebirths in such Eastern faiths as Buddhism and Hinduism. Members of the Islamic Jihad martyr themselves in performing terrorist acts, assured by leaders that their sacrifice will earn them a place in heaven. Practitioners of Santeria sacrifice animals to protect themselves against death. This mode is experienced as being released from one's biological finiteness, of living at a higher level of existence.

Americans are, it seems, more prone to experience this mode than those from most other developed nations. For instance, according to the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Surveys, four out of ten American adults believe that they have at least once been in touch with one who has died and more than seven in ten believe in an afterlife. Two-thirds claim to have had at least one déjà vu experience, and nearly three in ten have seen future events occur as if they were happening at that moment in the present.

The creative mode entails the belief that one's endeavors are worthwhile because they can withstand the tests of time. Being symbolic creatures, human essence resides not in the physical body but rather in the minds of others. Thus one can "live on" in others through one's works, through memories of one's deeds, and in one's enduring influence on generations yet born. Sociobiologists refer to this as mimetic immortality, which may be more potent than genetic. As the scholar Richard Dawkins observed,

When we die we can leave behind genes and/or memes. The difference between them being that our genes will be forgotten in just a few generations. As each generation passes, the contribution of one's unique genes is halved. . . . But if you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a spark plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. (Dawkins 1990, p. 214)

The natural mode of symbolic immortality involves the continuance of the natural world beyond the individual's lifetime, as well with the feeling of being part of the eternal universe beyond oneself.

In a sense, the ecology movement can be seen as an immortality attempt of many individuals whose efforts lead to the preservation of some natural habitat or species of life. As the natural order disappears as human population burgeon, "nature" is increasingly preserved in parks and zoos. Technological innovation has contributed to this sense as well. The collectively produced spacecraft that has left the solar system and will continue to "fly on" even after the sun goes supernova.

The mystical or experiential transcendence mode features an altered state of consciousness so intense that one "looses oneself" in a timeless, deathless realm currently referred to as being "in the zone." As the scholar Jean-Louis Drolet noted, this differs from the other modes as it depends on a psychic state, one characterized by extraordinary psychic unity and perceptual intensity. It can occur with a number of activities, such as during orgasm, birth, athletic effort, ingestion of psychotropic substances, or contemplation. And having had such an experience, according to Robert Lifton, "One never 'returns' to exactly the same inner structure of the self. Having once broken old forms, one senses that they can be broken again, or at least extended beyond earlier limitations" (Lifton 1979, p. 26).

Immortality Ideologies across History

Following the tradition of Franz Borkenau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Otto Rank, Lifton cast history to ultimately be changes in immortality symbolizations (or ideologies). For instance, the rise of Darwinian thought not only weakened the theological mode but led to "man's sense of biological continuity was extended back into the infinite past . . . [and] into the infinite future" (p. 286). Man's imagery of his own history now came to include, in some important degree, the history of all his fellow species, not only animal but even plants—in other words, it produced a reactivation of the natural mode of immortality.

Modern medical technologies have enhanced the mystical mode by its ability to resurrect those "clinically dead." By the late 1960s, stories of what it is like to die began to circulate widely in professional quarters, and in 1975 they were shared with the general public in the best-selling book Life after Life, by Raymond Moody, a physician and philosopher. Here, Moody reported tantalizing similarities among the reports of those having had "near-death experiences," or NDEs, including outof-body experiences, interactions with deceased others, and born-again outlooks. The results of an early 1980s national survey indicated that as many as 8 million Americans have had such experiences.

But modern times have also thwarted the perceived potency of these modes to overcome death. A central theme of Lifton's work is how, for much of the latter half of the twentieth century, the possibility of nuclear war threatened cultural symbols of immortality while propagating deadening imageries of extinction. The suspected consequences of fearing that all transcendence modes will be vaporized range from the growth of religious fundamentalism and cults to the contemporary drug "epidemics."

With the end of the cold war, one would expect a resurgence of transcendence interest. Indeed, since the 1980s the popular culture has witnessed a proliferation of halls of fame (ranging from international, national, state, city, and occupational) and "Who's Who" compilations, a significant increase in the percent of Americans believing in reincarnation and life after death, opportunities for being remembered through charitable donations, and even an affirmative action campaign for U.S. postage stamp immortalizations of such notables as rock-and-roll legend Elvis Presley.

In general, however, modernity's effects on the traditional modes of symbolic immortality have been double-edged. When change has become life's only certainty there's been a severing of sensed connections between living generations and those of the future and past, hence the observed historic ignorance of American students. Changes in family structure and relationships, such as those wrought by the divorce revolution, have dampened members' knowledge of (and interest in) familial generations past, possibly weakening the significance attached to the biological mode. Thus even though new recording technologies may be able to virtually preserve one's image or voice, what difference does it make if no one knows or cares who you were? And with increasing secularization and the loss of religious monopoly over transcendence symbolizations, connections between desirous immortality and the moral worthiness of lives lived evaporated, as have images of hell from the Christian imagination.

Symbolic Immortality As Source of Evil

Symbolic immortality has its dark side; attempts to transcend oneself through heroism may also lie at the root of human evil. Being a "loser" in life, John Hinkley sought immortality through infamy by trying to kill the president of the United States. Nearly two decades later, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were to receive in death more attention than they did in life because of their murderous frenzy at Columbine High School. The Columbine gunmen sought immortality through a well-planned suicidal massacre, coming not only through the notoriety of their deed but also through their electronic legacies—from their web site and from a series of videos taped over the weeks before the massacre, wherein the nihilistic rationalizations for their revenge were developed. Their immortality would be further enhanced as their death day would occur on the birthday of Adolf Hitler, the twentieth century's embodiment of evil. "Directors will be fighting over this story," Klebold said in one video. In another, made on the morning of the massacre, he said, "It's a half hour before Judgment Day. I didn't like life very much. Just know I'm going to a better place than here" (Associated Press, 1999).

See also: Afterlife IN Cross-Cultural Perspective ; Immortality ; Memorial, Virtual


Associated Press. "Columbine Gunmen Sought Immortality." 13 December, 1999.

Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press, 1973.

Borkenau, Franz. "The Concept of Death." In Robert Fulton ed., Death and Identity. New York: John Wiley, 1965.

Choron, Jacques. Death and Modern Man. New York: Collier Books, 1964.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Drolet, Jean-Louis. "Transcending Death during Early Adulthood: Symbolic Immortality, Death Anxiety, and Purpose in Life." Clinical Psychology 46, no. 2 (1990):148–160.

Gallup, George. Adventures in Immortality: A Look beyond the Threshold of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Lifton, Robert. The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

McDannell, Colleen, and Bernhard Lang. Heaven: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Rank, Otto. Psychology and the Soul. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.

Wiesel, Elie. All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.


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