The Three Faces

Since taking a course on The Philosophy of Religion with Dr. Wendy Farley, I have developed an interest in studying death and suffering. Naturally, I began to pay more attention to how death appeared in every day life and how we (as mortal beings) interact with the idea and consequences of death. The first topic related book I picked up thereafter was The Sacred Art of Dying: How World Religions Understand Death, and I would often read the book behind the coffee shop counter on a slow afternoon. Though it has been two years since I have read the book, I clearly remember author Kenneth Kramer, in his introduction, depicting death in three faces: physical death, psychological death, and spiritual death.

He describes physical death in a way that matches the medical and biological death we have studied in class. There is irreversible l­oss of brain waves, damage to the central nervous system, and cessation of cardiac and respiratory function (Kramer 1988 p.11). Psychological death is “the life of quasi-consciousness, living, as if having already died,” and spiritual death is “the transformation of old patterns, habits, roles, identities and the birth of a new person” (Kramer 1988 p.11). The latter two faces of death left me much to ponder. While I was comfortable and familiar with physical death, Kramer’s framing of psychological and spiritual death was jolting and new to me. The book focused on spiritual death and explained religious aspects of death such as attitudes and rituals. (Super recommend the book for anyone interested!)

Reading about spiritual death inspired me travel abroad to study suffering and Buddhism more closely—but that’s a story for another time. Presently, I contemplate the face of psychological death and its meaning. is I wonder if some cases of severe depression can qualify as psychological death. Kramer describes psychological death as a “reversible termination of one’s personal aliveness,” “a kind of emotional death” and “a lessening of aliveness” (Kramer 1988 p.18-19). Say we assume depression is indeed a form of psychological death. Narratives regarding depression and mental health often share stories of numbness, apathy, a lack of will, loss of interest and pleasure in activities, hopelessness and more. These symptoms and experiences of illness fit into the characteristics of psychological death Kramer describes. Suicide ideation could be seen as the desire to experience physical death if perhaps a person already felt psychologically dead. The notion that psychological death is reversible might also speak to the treatable aspect of depression through medications, counseling, psychoanalysis, meditation, and other forms of therapy. I do not know if psychological death is something widely accepted or discussed, but I do think it is an interesting way to frame mental illness.



Kramer, K. 1988, The Sacred Art of Dying: How World Religions Understand Death. New York: Paulist Press.

2 responses to “The Three Faces

  1. Wow, the concept of equating psychological death with severe depression is frankly terrifying, but also an extremely interesting topic to discuss. I definitely do believe that death is so much more than just what is defined as physical death. But, I guess I would personally break it up differently. Maybe physical death, emotional death, and spiritual death. What I mean when I say emotional death is for instance when a person is still breathing and maybe even functioning, however, their emotional connections to those around them are lost. This could be due to a disease or head trauma. But, I do think there is something to be said when you bring up the feelings of the the severely depressed. I am not trying to claim understanding exactly what someone may feel in that moment, but I can imagine that they see themselves in the blurry space between life and death, as neither here nor there. This is a very complicated topic to discuss, thank you so much for bringing it up. I may just go a read the book!

  2. I am fascinated by the idea of multiple types of death. So many people are quick to categorize death as purely physical, but many other factors can play into such an occurrence. Growing up in the Christian church, I was raised with the idea of two “deaths,” the first being a death to our sinful past and an acceptance of Christ, and the second being the physical death you mentioned. This background has led me to think of what other types of death we can experience while we are alive. In conjunction with the psychological death you mentioned, I believe that social death is also very prominent in our culture. For instance, when we read the article about the plight of nursing homes I began to fully understand how many residents can experience a social death if they lose much of their independence and outside connections. Social death, to me, is categorized by a loss of personal relationships and self-autonomy. When people feel as though they are no longer valued or seen as someone who just needs daily maintenance, they lose much of their personhood. It would be interesting to further investigate the overlap between a psychological death and a social death, analyzing the progression or coevolution of the two. Your post definitely made me more aware of how we categorize death and the need to expand our perceptions of it, great job!

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