Spring was in the air in Paris last week. Along the meandering Seine, there were the usual hordes of human heliotropes in lounge chairs shoved up against the walls; those on the Champs-Élysées were already donning their oversized designer sunglasses, fanning themselves and their little ones with crisply folded tourist maps; and I observed a squinting housecat sunning itself on a second-floor balcony and flicking its tail at passersby below. But not all is rosebuds, sunshine and dewdrops in The City of Lights. It’s also a place to mingle with the dead—or at least their bones.
Once you’ve breezed through the museums and done your rounds at the cafés, the famous graveyards of Paris are also a must see, and Juan and I spent a considerable amount of time during our recent visit there wandering the grounds of Montparnasse and Père Lachaise, paying our meaningless respects to the inexistent souls of Sartre, Wilde, Baudelaire, Proust and Balzac, to name just a few. I also persuaded a reluctant Juan to accompany me on a two-hour train ride to the town of Charleville-Mézières near the Belgian border, where we visited the “resting place” of enfant terrible poet Arthur Rimbaud, author of “A Season in Hell” and “Illuminations.” Back in Paris, we descended into the damp catacombs, a dimly lit, labyrinthine ossuary where the remains of six million people were reinterred in the eighteenth century after their improperly buried corpses began polluting the church grounds where they were originally disposed.
And as I ran my fingers along the walls of crumbled crypts and stared at the mildewed teeth of someone in the catacombs who ate bread a century before Napoleon was born, I experienced the familiarly acute awareness of my own fleeting existence. According to some social psychologists—namely, those who work in the area of “terror management theory”—the human mind acts predictably irrationally in response to such concrete reminders of death. In a nutshell, these researchers argue that the evolution of self-consciousness in our human ancestors came with a heavy price, which was the awareness that they were mortal. This awareness of death brought a crippling sense of anxiety, claim terror management theorists, one that interfered with our ancestors’ otherwise adaptive, everyday social behaviors. Why do anything at all if all is for naught?
To cope with this anxiety, terror management theory suggests, our species evolved a suite of psychological defenses that allowed us to accept the unavoidable reality of death while assuaging our existential fears and to get on with the business of being alive. A central component of this theory is the idea that our cultural worldviews and the unique items and artifacts that go along with these worldviews (flags, architecture, dress, food, currency, etc.) provide us a healing sense of “symbolic immortality.”
That is to say, although as biological animals we’re all headed for the same inescapable fate as those who’ve become a carbon-based tourist attraction in Paris, our culture—as a symbolic system—will outlive us, perhaps for a relative eternity. So, say terror management theorists, most people tend to endorse their own prevailing cultural worldviews because culture serves as an anxiety-reducing buffer against thoughts of death. Contribute meaningfully to this system, or at least defend it, and a part of you will live on in the cultural ethos even after you turn to dust. Other competing cultural worldviews are therefore somewhat threatening, since they’d erase you summarily from the history of life on earth if ever they eclipse and obliterate your own culture. Ever heard of the Beothuk Indians? There’s a reason for that. They went extinct in 1829 largely as a result of the European incursion into the Northern half of Newfoundland.
As far as I know, there haven’t been any psychological experiments conducted in French cemeteries. But a few have been done in nearby Germany. Now, conducting a psychology experiment in a cemetery may seem strange on the face of it, but in the context of terror management theory, it makes a lot of sense since participants are unknowingly “primed” with clear and unambiguous reminders of death. If the central premise of the theory is true—that thoughts of death trigger cultural worldview defenses—then we’d expect people in cemeteries to be more patriotic when it comes to their own cultures (and perhaps more disparaging of other cultures) than likeminded people tested in an environment without such obvious reminders of death.
In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Economic Psychology, German psychologist Eva Jonas from Ludwig-Maximilians University and Immo Fritsche from Otto-von-Guericke University teamed up with terror management theory co-founder, social psychologist Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona, to probe the attitudes of residents from Magdeburg, Germany, regarding all things German. Pedestrians who were either in a small shopping area (control condition) or in front of a cemetery’s main entrance “with a funeral home and a stonemason store exhibiting gravestones on the other side of the street” (the mortality salience condition) were approached by an experimenter.