In speculative fiction shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, characters witness firsthand the existence of heaven, perform successful seances and resurrect the dead. Despite this, however, they still act as though death is a horrible tragedy even though characters who have died outright state they are happier being dead than alive. In real life, we only treat death as a tragedy and a mystery because there is no empirical evidence of an afterlife and our minds are incapable of comprehending the sensation of nonexistence.

Why do characters act as though death is some tragic mystery even after experiencing all these events that make it very clear that death is a wonderful thing that should be celebrated?

EDIT: This has massive implications for our societies. If the afterlife was verified to exist and was qualitatively better than the world of the living, then people would celebrate at funerals rather than mourn. Seances would become as a commonplace as telephone calls and every Halloween families would invite their dead ancestors over for dinner. Religions the world over would redefine themselves to accept this new reality just like most of them accepted modern science aside from a lunatic fringe.

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    $\begingroup$ Why do religious people who believe strongly in the afterlife (I know Christians believe that all Christians will go to heaven, and I think there are other religions where you can have the same certainty about going to a better place) mourn at funerals, even though they are essentially in the same situation? $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2017 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ @JarredAllen - Christian funerals are a real mixture: I've seen a lot of singing, rejoicing and a lot of crying. It's a mixture of sharing the joy of the deceased and being sad that they're gone from our own lives for the time being. There's also sorrow from reflecting on the past together - it invokes nostalgia and sadness that some good times are behind us and aren't coming back. Funerals are a joyful and a sad occasion all at once for Christians. This may capture a little of what I'm talking about $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2017 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ ll in those shows they also find evidence that other religions/mythologies are true too. Which would make someone more thoughtful. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jan 13, 2017 at 14:32
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    $\begingroup$ @John: most of these shows go out of their way to avoid promoting any real religion and portray the afterlife as a generic happy place where everybody goes. Ep 5x16 of Sabrina the Teenage Witch has sisters Hilda and Zelda visiting the afterlife specifically to assuage Hilda's fears about dying, where it is portrayed as an endless party. When every other show has more or less the same happy afterlife, it makes no sense for the characters who know this to fear death. $\endgroup$
    – Anonymous
    Jan 13, 2017 at 16:34
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    $\begingroup$ Notice that in real life, those who are absolutely certain that there is an afterlife and that they will be going to heaven don't seem to fear death. ISIS fanatics seem to not fear death and go so far as to joyfully send their children on suicide missions. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2017 at 18:47

8 Answers 8


Many things to discuss here.

1. Human Nature

First, the reasons characters act the way they do is because it's literally human nature. We have evolved to be terrified of death, it's what kept our ancestors alive long enough to make a new generation. Whether or not one considers it logical to be afraid of death we will fear it, because that's how our instincts and our culture and everything around us tell us to feel. Fears are not always logical and some are very ingrained in our psyche.

2. What we leave behind

Fear of death can also be fear of what is left behind. To give an analogy people may be afraid of a move to another state even though they expect to live a decent life after the move. They're afraid because they have to leave their friends and family and everything they have known behind. They are moving on to something different and regret what they have to give up. The same can apply to death. You won't see you family again, you can never play with your son or go out for a night on the town with your best friends. Everything you knew and loved before you died will never be an option again.

3. Unfinished business

Closely related to the above, there is business that you may have wished to complete that you can't. Perhaps you defined yourself by your legacy you intended to leave behind and that legacy isn't complete. That startup business you were so proud of will collapse without you at the helm, or you were just about to star in a play you dreamt of being the lead in all your life and now that will never happen. Or a more likely, and worse, option, perhaps your young children will have no parent left to care for them once you die, they will grow up in an orphanage and never remember your face or how much you cared for them. Leaving loved ones that depend on you without your support is something anyone can rightfully be afraid of.

4. You still don't know what awaits you.

Most of these worlds depict some sort of life after death, but many aren't specific on just what it entails. Have you ever read Greek mythology? They had a life after death, but even the most heroic (which is as close as Greeks got to 'good') were looking at a bleak and miserable 'life' after they died, to the point that when Odysseus visits tartarus in 'The Odyssey' friends of his who had died tell him flat out that death is horrible and he should do everything in his power to live as long as possible and enjoy life to avoid this fate.

Unless your certain you know what the afterlife entails there is still plenty to fear. It's still a great unknown, there is no way to be certain if the world beyond is something to be enjoyed or hated. There is reason to be afraid of that unknown.

5. Are you certain you're headed up?

Lets say the christian version of Heaven has been confirmed to exist, doesn't that also imply a Hell? Who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell?

Even within Christianity we can't seem to decide that. Some say that anyone that believes in god goes to heaven, but do you really believe, have you never had doubts? Even the most pious of men surely have, but how severe can your doubts be before they exclude you from Heaven? What of the religions that have strict rules you must follow to earn heaven, have you followed all of them? Surely every man in the world has broken one or two of those rules, that's human nature. How many are you allowed to bend before you no longer qualify for Heaven? How many good deeds were you required to do, and did you do enough?

In short there is no promise that you will be the one in Heaven. Obviously anyone facing Hell would have every reason to be terrified of death, but since it's hard to tell what standards you must live up to, or if you met them, everyone, no matter how pious or altruistic, should be aware of the possibility of Hell.

Then there are all the atheists, agnostics, and other religions out there. Only one religion can be right surly, that means every other religion is doomed to hell by default! Even in a world with a confirmed afterlife some may be atheists, some may disagree with the values from the bible (or other religious text) or feel God doesn't deserve their support if he refuses to intervene to help people, all those would presumably be headed to Hell.

6. It's a self selecting demographic

If you think about it those that aren't afraid of death, and are confident that they will be headed to heaven, have no reason to stick around this world. Death is not hard to achieve, if you're certain what lies beyond will be better then your find a way to make that happen. The only ones alive now would be the ones that have sufficient fears about death to have survived.

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    $\begingroup$ @Anonymous visiting and occasionally restoring the death only makes it slightly less bad. We can come back from having our house burn down, we can recover from terrible diseases, we can even learn to live with one less limb. That doesn't make the prospect of going through such an ordeal any less terrifying. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jan 13, 2017 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ +1 for excellent answer, even though I somewhat disagree on point 6. I happen to believe in heaven and am 100% confident I am going there. I have faced death many times with zero fear, and am excited about the prospect of moving on. If God were to tell me I will die tonight, I'd dance a jig. But, I also love my life, and while heaven might be better, it is not going anywhere. If my life lasts another 20 or 30 years, I am curious as heck to see what it brings. Point is: believing in a literal heaven and certainty of going there does not necessitate a desire to end this life. $\endgroup$
    – user11864
    Jan 13, 2017 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ @AgapwIesu Pairing that against the Buddha's assertion "life is dukkha" yields quite the interesting conflict-yet-not-conflict. I like it =) $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 13, 2017 at 23:02
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    $\begingroup$ @AgapwIesu While I agree that #6 is somewhat problematic as stated, I think the point was that some believers do decide they'd rather be in heaven, and such people are unlikely to appear among the living for very long after making that decision. Also, while you state that you've faced death with zero fear, it sounds to me like you have the same fears as most other people-- of never knowing where your life might have taken you, and of having to spend an eternity in a place that only "might" be better than life. $\endgroup$ Jan 13, 2017 at 23:50
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I did figure you were generalizing, but the way the point was worded, it would seem to imply suicide is generally a natural result of not being afraid of death. I think you could edit that point a bit and make it stronger. Interesting, and very valid, points you make on this comment about the self selection of being more likely to face death. My wife would heartily agree with you on that score. Again, excellent answer - I like the way you think. $\endgroup$
    – user11864
    Jan 17, 2017 at 21:04

Parting is sad, even if someone has gone to a "better place" you are not going to see them for years, or decades even. If your best friend/family member/whatever were to go on a one-way no-further-communication trip to mars you'd most likely be sad too. Especially if they didn't choose to leave but instead were selected by a random lottery and thrown in a shuttle.

I agree that the knowledge would be a source of great comfort to people, which is no doubt one of the main reason afterlife mythology is so popular, and so the mourning would be less - but it would still exist. All the possibilities and dreams for what that person could have achieved in life have just died along with the person themselves.


In TV shows where characters die, (and we know are going to end up in heaven or resurrected) the other characters have to feel sad, to share emotion with the viewers.
It's more enjoyable to watch a show with emotion (whichever it is) rather than no emotion ("meh, he's dead, good for him").

Now for real people, that believe in heaven, it may be just a selfish reaction. They won't see the deceased one until they die, which can take many years, so they're just sad about the time they'll stay separated (or deep down, they don't really believe in heaven).
(Or if they do, they know they won't go there because they are not pious enough)


Assuming that nobody gets resurrected, but just goes on to an eternal afterlife:

Death is painful and permanent

For most animals, life can be reduced to a series of irreversible developmental events that are usually painful.

  1. Birth: Painful and disorienting
  2. Growth stages/sexual maturation: Accompanied by musculoskeletal aches and psychological disorientation
  3. Aging toward death: Increasing aches, pains, and degradation of faculties, which can lead to a cascade of emotional pains.

Death is no different. Dying "of old age" is at best, a continuation of (3). On the other hand, dying due to misadventure is likely to be exceedingly painful, or at best, irrevocable and sudden.

An equally critical point is that once you pass through any of those stages, there's no going back. Death is the most dramatic of these, because you can't go back to the world of the living. Even if you're old, there are still some things you can do from previous life stages.

Facing up to any of these stages is scary.


Because they believe in the wrong religion.

Look at religions who celebrate death as you described - a happy moment because person is set free from his mortal body, sickness and human problems. In the core of such act is a strong belief that the deceased was good and surely there is award waiting for him for his good deeds.

BUT - if your religion is mostly based on guilt, being not good enough, breaking the rules of god and being bad person in every thing you do and think you can't wait for death as you are expecting that the only thing waiting for you is punishment, hell, eternal damnation and having a pitchfork up your buns.

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    $\begingroup$ Thwt doesn’t make sense. If the afterlife is “known” then they don’t have to argue belief. S9meone who does beleive won’t suppose he’s wrong. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jan 13, 2017 at 16:49
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    $\begingroup$ Do you have any examples of such a religion? The ones I know seem mostly "mixed bag" about the whole thing, not outright happy. $\endgroup$
    – Erik
    Jan 13, 2017 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ Catholic religion. To quote Jack Donaghy form 30 rock "Even though there is the whole confession thing, that's no free pass, because there is a crushing guilt that comes with being a Catholic. Whether things are good or bad or you're simply... eating tacos in the park, there is always the crushing guilt. " $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2017 at 17:01

These shows are by humans for humans, not actual vampires. Those humans live in a culture with certain expectations (about how people react to someone being "killed"), and the shows are not out to question them much if at all. Those shows are to entertain, not make us think. They're for mass consumption. Little if any thought is really being given to the subject you raised.

I agree with the implied criticism of these portrayals. The Vampires Diaries is especially silly, as vampires can be seemingly killed over and over again, because each time is not a real killing, and yet the other characters act horrified as if it is, despite knowing they'll get up in 20 minutes, no harm done. It's stupid.

If the characters can't really be killed, then we have less to fear for them. If the actors act like it's still a big deal, this imbues a scene with drama that would otherwise be gone (invulnerable characters provide less drama). The actors react horrified, etc. for the viewer's benefit, so we can feel horrified. If the actors are indifferent, we probably are, too.

No one wants an indifferent audience. Indifference actors = indifferent audience, no audience, no revenue, no show.


I've haven't seen charm but I have seen buffy so I'm using that as a model for the world you described.

  1. partings are always sad. When family members who you have spent your whole life with move away people often expires sadness. In death even if that person will continue to live on in heaven the people they left be hide will never see are speak to them again so they can still miss they and that would understandably make them sad

  2. Ultimately fate could still be unknown. In buffy it is unclear what things lead you to heaven or hell. Also when magic is involved then it becomes even more unclear. When buffy dies the first time Willow fears that her soul went to hell because magic was involved in her death.

  3. Unclear whether how much of a person old self is retained and carried on in to the afterlife. They might for example lose there memories of there love ones. Or all of there experience on this earth entirely. Much is unknown about the afterlife and this is made more confusing with there been multiple heaves in buffy. What if all your family and friends go to one heaven and you go to another?

  4. Skepticism. there are people today that happened brought back to life to science who claimed to have experience the afterlife. However many scientists are skeptical believing that these experiences are hallucinations caused by lack of oxygen to the brain in the last few moments before death. Even if Resurrection was commonplace and happen often through Magic, Skeptics could still argue that their experiences are nothing more than hallucinations. Caused either by the brain or buy demons purposely trying to fool or deceive people. Furthermore they could say the same thing about seances. Saying that the psychics are communicating with the Dead but with demons impersonating the Dead. It sounds a little far-fetched but even today we have people who are skeptical of the moon landings and other things so it's not too far-fetched that in this world people might still be a little skeptical of the afterlife even if people regularly returned from there.


As a Christian, I know by faith that heaven exists and that it awaits me if I remain in my faith in Jesus: faith that he is the Son of God, that he died on the cross as the sacrifice for our sins, that he rose again from the dead, and that salvation is found through faith in him and repentance of sins (Christian repentance is not doing good works or saying sorry for every sin, it's a change of heart so that I no longer want to live for myself but rather for God, and it's demonstrated by my life and my works--the works themselves aren't repentance). Fortunately Christianity teaches salvation by grace through faith (the Bible says: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God"), not by good works or observing the law perfectly. If it did, I would 100% agree with #5 in the answer by @dsollen, but fortunately Jesus died to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law in us, so whether we go to Heaven or Hell doesn't depend on observing the law or being good enough, but on faith in Jesus and repentance of sins (faith and repentance go hand-in-hand because Jesus calls us to believe on him and to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him; ironically, the only way we can become better is through faith in Jesus and repentance of our sins as we let God change us, but it isn’t the good works that save us).

So why grief for a Christian? For one thing we're still human. The Bible itself says to mourn with those who mourn. Even Jesus did so, in the shortest verse in the Bible: "Jesus wept". He wept because he saw people he loved weeping over the death of a relative (Lazarus), even though he knew the outcome, that he would raise that dead relative from the dead just moments later--it's the whole reason he went to visit on that occasion. Knowing what was to come didn't negate his compassion or his emotions. Lazarus' sister Martha had faith that she'd see Lazarus again in the Resurrection, and she told Jesus, in between weeping, that even now God would give him whatever he asked--she had faith that Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead. So her faith did not negate her grief, nor did her grief negate her faith.

In addition, while I know that I have eternal life, I have no concept of eternity yet. For me, 100 years seems like an eternity--20 or 30 years even seems very long. So the prospect of living without a loved one for decades is very sad. Add to that that some loved ones don't believe in Jesus and there is extra grief. Or there may be concern or wonder about a loved-one's end state.

It is true that there is some fear of the unknown--that's why it comes down to faith, because it is unseen (as the Bible says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."), but this fear of the unknown that requires Christians to rest on faith doesn't (or shouldn't; if it does, then we're doubting) increase grief, though it can definitely be hard to remember in a time of grief that you will see a person again, and as I mentioned before, it's especially hard when you assume that "again" means in (hopefully :)) 10, 20, 30, 40, or more years.

So Christians who have absolute assurance of heaven and eternal life because of their faith in Jesus and repentance of sins can still grieve the death of loved ones without being untrue to their faith. Faith in heaven and eternal life definitely reduces that sting when the loved one is a believer, but the emotions are still there because we're still human beings.


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