Symbolic Immortality and Social Theory: The Relevance of an Underutilized Concept

Lee Garth Vigilant & John B Williamson. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The study of symbolic immortality begins with the seminal contributions of the social psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1974, 1976, 1979), whose ideas have had notable impacts on the psychological literature on identity formation in life and on the thanatological literature on the continuity of identity beyond death (Mathews and Mister 1987; Shneidman 1973). According to Lifton, healthy individuals seek a sense of life continuity, or immortality, through symbolic means. When people lack such a sense of continuity, they experience psychic numbing and profound emotional difficulty, as Lifton (1968) has shown in his analysis of the survivors of the first atomic attack. Overall, Lifton’s studies have demonstrated how and why the attainment of a sense of symbolic immortality is an essential requisite for mental health and the realization of a vital and enduring self.

Unfortunately, because sociologists have largely neglected Lifton’s insights, an important gap exists in the literature on identity construction and its continuation after death. In this chapter we seek to fill that gap, particularly by highlighting the central features of Lifton’s theory of symbolic immortality, its application in sociological research, and its relevance for sociological theories of identity construction.

When “Death’s Enticing Echo Mocks”: The Work of Symbolic Immortality

Lifton coined the term symbolic immortality to refer to the universal human quest to achieve a sense of continuity in the face of the incontrovertible evidence that we will die. According to Lifton (1974, 1979), the knowledge that we will die forces us to confront and transcend our fears of finitude in symbolic ways; in particular, we rely on various modes of symbolic immortality. These modes connect us to the past and future, linking us to those who have gone before us and to those who will live on after us and remember our contributions (Lifton 1979). Most important, Lifton asserts that the pursuit of symbolic immortality gives meaning to our existence by preserving our connection to others in material ways in this life while ensuring our continued symbolic connection to others once we have left this mortal coil. Lifton proposes that we do this by drawing on five modes of symbolic connectedness or immortality, which he identifies as biological, creative, transcendental, natural, and experiential transcendence.

The first mode of achieving a sense of symbolic immortality, the biological, is perhaps the most ubiquitous means of ensuring our connection to the future. At the genetic level, this mode connects us to the past through our families of orientation and to the present and future through our families of procreation, in both their biological and their social manifestations (e.g., significant others, children and other kin, and friends). For Lifton (1979), a chain of continuous biological and social attachments mark this type of symbolic immortality mode, as in the sense of living through our children, their children, and our culture. Moreover, at the biosocial level, this mode includes our connectedness to our species-being by way of friendships, culture, imagined communities, and the norms and values that give us a sense of collective social identity.

The second mode of achieving symbolic immortality is through creative acts. Lifton observes that the creative expression of symbolic immortality is most commonly associated with art, literature, and music, in the sense that artists’ works live on after their creators have died. Lifton also points to the scientific enterprise and the building of cumulative knowledge, where the work of one researcher might be carried forward by others, as another expression of creative immortality. In addition, Lifton (1979:22) directs special attention to deep interpersonal relationships, where the bonds of the communicative act are long lasting and profound, as in the relationship between parent and child, psychotherapist and patient, or teacher and student. Such relationships embody the potential for creative immortality.

Lifton’s third mode of achieving a sense of symbolic immortality, the expression of theological or religious imagery, is grounded in the idea of “life-power”—that is, the ability to overcome death through the power of religion or spirituality. Lifton (1979) posits that all of the great world religions have this one thing in common: the quest to get beyond the inevitability of death. He states: “Whatever the imagery, there is at the heart of religion a sense of spiritual power. That power may be understood in a number of ways—dedication, capacity to love, moral energy—but its final meaning is life-power and power over death” (p. 20). And eschatology—belief in a kingdom to come and that death is not the end—is the cornerstone of all major religions.

The fourth mode of achieving a sense of symbolic immortality is through natural means. By natural means, Lifton (1979) refers to our connectedness to the natural world around us, the sense that after our mortal demise, the world itself, with its trees, oceans, and clouds—all that constitutes the earth—will remain.

The fifth and final mode of experiencing a sense of immortality is the most important for Lifton; he refers to it as the experience of transcendence. It is a mode entirely different from the other four in that it is grounded in “a psychic state—one so intense and all-encompassing that time and death disappear” (Lifton 1979:24). As a psychological state, the mode of experiential transcendence involves moving beyond or transcending the mundane and profane, and individuals can experience it in all four of the previously described modes. Thus one might experience a sense of transcendence through a deep spiritual experience, such as a baptism and being born again in the Christian sense or being in a mystical trance—a signature feature of many religions. Other methods of achieving transcendence include epiphanic experiences such as giving birth and rapturous encounters such as might be attained through the use of psychedelic drugs or other substances that produce mundane-transcending sensations. The mode of experiential transcendence also includes the ecstatic transcendence that is derived from orgasm. Here, according to Lifton (1979), “the self feels uniquely alive—connected, in movement, integrated—which is why we can say that this state provides at least a temporary sense of eliminating time and death” (p. 26). What is unique about experiential transcendence is that when one is immersed in the experience, be it orgasmic ecstasy, drug-induced euphoria, or spiritual rapture, one feels as if one has overcome death because of the immediacy and intensity of the event.

Lifton proposes that the five modes described above constitute the mechanism whereby people are able to reduce death anxiety by achieving a sense of mastery over mortality, and this mastery is essential for psychological wellness. Additionally, these five death-transcending strategies play an important role in countering what Lifton (1979) refers to as “death-equivalent experiences.” These experiences serve as antecedents to some of the common psychological and social disorders that are rooted in feelings of stasis, separation, and disintegration. By stasis, Lifton refers to a life without a sense of purpose—the experience of “going nowhere fast”—which, for example, forms the basis of many midlife crises. By separation, Lifton means the loss of connectedness to a larger community or the loss of the love connection to other human beings, and this death equivalent, along with stasis, can be the basis for certain types of depression, a state of both physical and psychic stasis (p. 182). Lifton describes disintegration as the absence of those ethical principles that individuals use to organize—or ground—human experience within a historical-cultural context (p. 101). In the absence of those unifying and organizing principles, be they based in religion or grounded in ideology, disintegration is likely to occur, and for sociologists, social disintegration, or anomie, is the antecedent for societal pathologies. So, then, people’s use of death-transcending strategies becomes inextricably linked to their need to reduce these death equivalents and to maintain their psychic health by giving a sense of purpose to their existence.

The five modes of death transcendence that Lifton identifies are not the only paths to achieving a sense of symbolic immortality. Several analysts have proposed other possible methods of preserving the self after death. Edwin S. Shneidman’s (1973, 1995) work on the development of the concept of the postself is particularly noteworthy. As Shneidman describes it, the postself consists of a person’s reputation and continued influence after death. Shneidman (1995) delineates five ways in which the self can live on after death: (a) in the memories of those who are still living; (b) through the interactions others have with the deceased’s creative works (art, music, books, and so on ), (c) in the bodies of others, as in the case of organ transplants; (d) in the genes of the deceased’s progeny; and (e) in the cosmos. It is important to keep in mind that a central difference between the postself and the symbolically immortalized self is that the postself often assumes an identity of its own—an identity completely unplanned for, or wholly unexpected, by the self when it was alive. However, as intriguing as discussions of the postself are, our focus in this chapter is on the work of symbolically immortalizing the self in life and not on postmortal identity.

Some Previous Research on Symbolic Immortality

The empirical literature on symbolic immortality, although relatively small, includes examinations of many of the theoretical assumptions of Lifton’s work. These empirical studies span the range of inquiry, from research concerning the biological means of achieving immortality to meditations on the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality through the vocation of teaching. Researchers conducted many of the earlier studies to explore the thesis that symbolic immortality is a requisite for healthy psychological development (Kastenbaum 1974; Mathews and Mister 1987; Schmitt 1982). Other work on this concept, however, has focused on the avenues to symbolic immortality available to different groups of people (Moremen and Cradduck 1998-99; Schmitt 1982).

In concert with Lifton’s biological mode of achieving symbolic immortality, Robert Kastenbaum (1974) conducted an early study to examine whether the fear of death compels people to reproduce in order to ensure their continuity. He found that 90% of the respondents in his study agreed with the sentiment that “people who have children and grandchildren can face death more easily than people who have no descendents to carry on.” Although this is certainly not an index of fear as an impetus for procreation, this rate of response clearly speaks to the importance of the biological mode of achieving a sense of immortality. Moreover, Kastenbaum’s findings are consistent with other empirical and historical evidence on the important role that progeny play in individuals’ achievement of a sense of symbolic immortality. Providing further support for Kastenbaum’s work is Rubinstein’s (1996) observation of the phenomenon of “lineal emptiness” in many of the childless women in his study of 160 women at a Philadelphia geriatric center; Rubinstein’s findings speak volumes about the importance of the biological mode in achieving a sense of immortality. The women in Rubinstein’s study viewed having offspring as one way to leave a legacy and support future generations—a quest that was propelled by both egoistic and altruistic motives. In another study, Drolet (1990) found that the sense of symbolic immortality becomes stronger with age, and that achieving that sense can help to decrease the fear of death in established adults and “thus possibly can contribute to the enhancement of life for the individual, as well as for society at large” (p. 159).

Other researchers have examined the attainment of a sense of symbolic immortality through creative activities (Blacker 1997; Cortese 1997; Goodman 1996; Lifton, Kato, and Reich 1979; Schmitt and Leonard 1986; Talamini 1989). Two studies concerning involvement in sports as a creative route to achieving symbolic immortality are noteworthy. The phenomenon of organized sports, especially on the university and professional levels, offers a unique arena in which to study the work of immortalizing the self. Through their involvement in professional sports, athletes can make history by taking part in extraordinary plays or by breaking long-standing records. It is this unique opportunity to “leave one’s mark” that makes the study of symbolic immortality in sports so profound. According to Schmitt and Leonard (1986), participation in organized sports provides athletes with unique death-transcending opportunities, through “(1) role-support, (2) engrossment through participation and communication, (3) comparison through measurement and records, and (4) recognition through awards and commemorative devices” (p. 1093). By role-support, Schmitt and Leonard refer to the support that others, including teammates, fans, and society in general, give to athletes that enables them to maintain their status in life and beyond. Moreover, role-support enables greater sociality in athletes’ interactions with fans and in their communications with the media, in print, television, and now cybervision. The comparison of athletes through their records is another way in which their immortality is ensured, because new athletes, commentators, and fans use the achievements of others as measuring rods for current performances. Thus athletes who have died or retired are remembered long after their playing days are over. And, of course, commemorative halls such as the Baseball and Football Halls of Fame, as well as the trophy cases that line the walls of most high school and university gymnasiums, speak to the enduring immortality of previous generations of athletes.

In another study that looked at participation in sports as a creative mode of achieving a sense of symbolic immortality, Cortese (1997) applied Schmitt and Leonard’s model to the experiences of amateur intracollegiate boxers. Cortese found that the same opportunities for a sense of symbolic immortality existed in the amateur ranks through role-support, participation and communication, comparisons of records, and commemorative awards. He notes that although the manifest function of the bouts in which the boxers in his study took part was charity fund-raising, the athletes themselves were keenly aware of their opportunities for symbolic immortality through titles, awards, and commemorative ceremonies. Moreover, the opportunities they had to win commemorative awards, such as championship trophies for winners and Notre Dame boxing jackets for all finalists, played a crucial role for the participants, both as a catalyst for their participation in the charity bouts and for immortalizing their postselves in the memories of others. Finally, for these athletes symbolic immortality was ensured in another way, as all of their bouts were immortalized in the print media, which published “tidbits of the personal histories of each fighter, often pointing to academic and personal achievements” (Cortese 1997:360).

The quest for symbolic immortality in other creative activities, such as through vocation, is another arena that has drawn some attention, albeit scant, from scholars concerned with death-transcending strategies. In her meditation on the profession of medicine as a route to achieving a sense of symbolic immortality, Palgi (1996) observes, “The most appealing feature of the medical professional self is that it has the potentiality of connecting with something that immortalizes, a life outside of the physician’s own, a life that may outlive the healer” (p. 229). In a sense, doctors live on in the lives and memories of their patients, and this form of creative immortality, according to Palgi, is one of the peripheral benefits of medicine.

Fortunately, the vocational path to symbolic immortality is not limited to healers; researchers have examined other professions whose practitioners also have the potential to live on in the memories of others. For example, David Blacker (1997) has analyzed pedagogy as a route to immortality, reasoning that

the ultimate payoff of education lies in the human interconnectedness it mends, nurtures, and gives birth to; its enduring value consists in its ability to “live in” those particular Others who are so connected, to make the extension any genuine ethic requires: beyond our narrower and more immediate projects and toward the Other. (P. 61)

Lessons taught, skills learned, and in-class interlocutions continue long after pedagogy stops. According to Blacker (1997, 1998), the work of education assures teachers that their pedagogical efforts will be transferred to other generations of pupils in the great chain of knowledge and learning. As the popular aphorism “Each one teach one” implies, education connects students and teachers in a cycle that is perpetual, where the memories of both the teacher and the lesson are conjoined. Teaching, much like the work of healing, bestows on its practitioners a creative sense of surpassing death—a feeling that the ultimate payoff of the work is found in the eternal connections that both student and teacher have to the ideas that are explicated, interrogated, and modified in pedagogical praxis.

Within the larger context of achieving a sense of symbolic immortality, a small body of research extends the discourse by considering the idea of identity preservation. David Unruh’s (1983) work on strategies of identity preservation between dying individuals and their loved ones is of particular import here. His study of individuals’ quests to preserve their identities beyond the is of particular interest for sociologists because Unruh describes the process as one that is grounded in interactions between dying individuals and their survivors. He identifies three strategies that the dying employ to preserve their identities after death: (a) attempts to solidify identity, in which the dying record, in memos, journals, and letters, aspects of their identities that they would like to preserve; (b) the accumulation of artifacts, in which dying persons collect artifacts and mementos that come to stand as symbols of their personal histories; and (c) the distribution of artifacts, typically to close friends and family members through wills and testaments, that attest to the identities of the deceased and assist survivors in their reminiscences of the lives of the deceased. In addition, Unruh outlines four strategic ways in which survivors might act to preserve the identities of their deceased loved ones:

  1. Reinterpreting the mundane, or giving new meaning to memories of ordinary past experiences with the deceased
  2. Redefining the negative, or idealizing less desirable aspects of the deceased’s personalities or lived experience
  3. Continuing to bond, or doing certain activities that stimulate reminiscence about the deceased
  4. Using sanctifying symbols or artifacts that come to serve as “sacred” representations of the deceased

As a significant departure from the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality, this model of preserving a postself identity beyond the grave is an interactional one that requires certain actions on the part of the dying or deceased and responses to those actions from the living—a relational requisite between the deceased and their survivors that is not explicit in Lifton’s work.

A few sociological researchers have documented and analyzed the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality and to preserve the self in the face of death among the chronically ill and dying (Charmaz 1991; Marshall 1975a, 1975b, 1986; Sandstrom 1998). In his work among men living with AIDS, Sandstrom (1998) found that the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality was omnipresent. Many of Sandstrom’s respondents grounded their postmortal selves in their occupations and artistic endeavors, whereas others secured their immortalized selves in eschatological hopes and spiritual beliefs. Similarly, Charmaz (1991) found that concerns about immortality were heightened among her population of sufferers of chronic pain, especially when death seemed imminent. She observed that achieving a sense of immorality offered meaning and purpose to the lives of her respondents.

Our review of the literature on symbolic immortality suggests that an understanding of the individual’s quest for symbolic immortality might enrich the knowledge of identity formation and maintenance in life as well as the quest for identity continuity after death. Unfortunately, the relevance of this quest to core themes in sociological theory remains underdeveloped. In order to facilitate this understanding, we link symbolic immortality to some key concepts in social theory in the following section.

Symbolic Immortality within Sociological Theory: Use Value

The quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality is a deeply sociological one, and in this section we connect this pursuit to some key concepts in the major streams of sociological thought: structuration, symbolic interactionism, and phenomenology. Our aim here is to broaden the existing literature on symbolic immortality by linking it to some key identity concepts in sociology.

The Immortal Self in Structuration Theory

Anthony Giddens, founder of the structuration perspective, has done more than any other sociologist in recent decades to bridge the chasm between agency and structure that has marked the science since its inception. Giddens (1984) asserts that “the basic domain of study of the social sciences, according to the theory of structuration, is neither the experience of the individual actor, nor the existence of any form of societal totality, but social practices ordered across space and time” (p. 2). These social practices, mediated by both individual choice and societal influence, have profound sway over the development of the self in late modernity, and the development of the self in late modernity is for Giddens (1991) a reflexive project in which the individual is continuously adjusting aspects of his or her biography to dynamic social changes. Giddens asserts that the self in late modernity is a self that is marked by existential anxieties. These anxieties emerge from the globalizing tendencies of economies of signs that continue to erode those primordial and gemeinschaften caring structures that historically functioned to build trust and inoculate against existential uneasiness. Modernity, as Giddens (1991) notes, “introduces an elemental dynamism into human affairs, associated with changes in trust mechanisms and in risk environments” (p. 32). Consequently, it is reflexivity, or the self-monitoring aspect of selfidentity, that is principally responsible for reducing those anxieties inherent to the late modern period. But more than this, reflexivity is the mechanism by which the late-modern self is constructed, for, as Giddens (1991) notes, “we are not what we are, but what we make of ourselves” (p. 75). Thus a structuration perspective might well interpret the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality as part of the reflexive project of the self in late modernity: a project that works to reduce existential anxiety through (a) attempts at “colonizing the future” through “strategic life planning,” (b) addressing existential questions, and (c) creating a sense of ontological security in the “protective cocoon” that achieving a sense of symbolic immortality offers.

The quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality through creative, biological, religious, natural, or transcendental means can be understood as an attempt to colonize the future through strategic life planning. The work of colonizing the future, which Giddens (1991) defines as the “creation of territories of future possibilities” (p. 242), is itself embodied in the quest for a sense of symbolic immortality, because, as previously noted, symbolic immortality is about gaining the assurance that one’s identity will continue long after one’s corporeal demise. Symbolic immortality, as a death-transcending apparatus, colonizes the future by assuring that one’s self-identity will remain an active part of the future, whether through an aesthetic act, a religious quest for an eternal soul, or by biological means, through progeny. But more than providing a mere assurance of transcending death, the quest for a sense of symbolic immortality might also reduce the fears and uncertainties inherent to life in the late-modern age. By forcing us to confront death’s inevitability and certainty, the quest to continue after death necessarily embodies some important existential questions around human connectedness. Moreover, existential questions—which, according to Giddens (1991:55), are questions concerning (a) the nature of one’s existence and being, (b) the finite and sentient nature of human life, (c) the existence of others, and (d) the “continuity of self identity”—lie at the very heart of the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality. Answers to these existential questions play a significant role not only in assuaging death anxiety (see Lifton 1974), but in building a sense of ontological security (Laing 1965; Giddens 1991). The strategic life planning involved in procuring one’s continuation after death creates a sense of mastery over the usual anxieties associated with severing one’s connectedness to the human community.

The Immortal Self in Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism, as a branch of social psychology, is expressly concerned with the self: principally, how the self is created through social interactions, how it interprets those interactions, and how it manipulates symbols to form those interpretations (Mead 1934). The founder of symbolic interactionism, Herbert Blumer (1962), reasons that human interaction is “mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another’s actions. This mediation is equivalent to inserting a process of interpretation between stimulus and response in the case of human behavior” (p. 180). Within the confines of Blumer’s definition of symbolic interaction, the work to immortalize the self becomes the work of manipulating symbols and signs in social interaction for the purpose of continuing the self after death—a self that, according to George Herbert Mead (1934:140), is a social structure that arises in social interaction. Consequently, the work involved in achieving a sense of symbolic immortality—whether it is the labor involved in creative activity, the time and care spent in giving moral guidance to one’s progeny, or the hours spent cultivating the soul in spiritual mediation—is work that is deeply social and that involves the manipulation of language, symbols, and signs, in communicative praxis with others, to engender a sense of achieving that immortal identity for the self. In essence, the immortalized self cannot exist outside the confines of the symbolic interactions that will ensure its continued existence. Recalling Unruh’s (1983) analyses of identity preservation, we find that if and how one will be remembered are questions that are essentially grounded in strategic encounters and planning, which are processes of symbolic interaction. Thus the achievement of a sense of symbolic immortality, under the terms of symbolic interactionism, is contingent on the existence of a “generalized other” (Mead 1934:154), whomever or whatever that generalized other is. In effect, it is the generalized other, which Mead (1934:154) defines as the reference group that gives a person his or her unity of self, that ensures that an individual will achieve a sense of symbolic immortality. It is only through social interaction, where meanings, ideas, and emotions about death and the continuity of the self are internalized and sought out, that an individual is ensured a sense of symbolic immortality and the continuation of the postself identity. Consequently, the very quest to arrive at this sense of immortality is one that is deeply social and entrenched in symbolic interaction.

The quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality also involves a great deal of self-interaction. By self-interaction, Mead (1934) means a reflexive process of the “turningback of the experience of the individual upon himself” (p. 134) through internal conversations, whereby the individual examines his or her own biography to find value and meaning in his or her life. An individual’s internal conversations concerning postself identity and memory in the minds of generalized others are an essential aspect of the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality. The question “How will I be remembered?” and the negotiation with others to ensure that memory begin with an internal conversation on the postself identity. This interactional quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality is linked to the most innate and natural of all human needs: the desire for meaningful social interactions within—and beyond—the confines of the corporeal. As Mead (1938) notes:

Human society is not at home in the world because it is trying to change that world and change itself; and, so long as it has failed to so change itself and change its world, it is not at home in it as the physiological and physical mechanism is. There is a need for salvation—not the salvation of the individual but the salvation of the self as a social being….Apart from the instinctive love of life, is that demand for immortality any more than an assertion of the continuous character of the social value which the individual as a social being can embody in himself? (P. 477)

The “salvation of the self as a social being” is exactly what the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality is all about. Mead connects this instinctive quest for immortality to our most basic need for social interaction in this life and beyond.

The quest to preserve the self by achieving a sense of symbolic immortality might also be interpreted as a form of biographical labor. In particular, it embodies the work of legitimating biography (Hewitt 1989), life review (Butler 1963), and self-objectification (Marshall 1986). Marshall (1986) posits that the work of legitimating one’s own biography, related to what he calls an “awareness of finitude” (p. 139), is an attempt to rewrite aspects of one’s biography and personal history so as to arrive at a final meaning, or a closing chapter, to life. Moreover, he notes that legitimation of biography intensifies with age, and this process reaches its peak when the individual concludes that he or she has only a few more years to live. The work to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality and, by necessity, the biographical legitimations that occur might well be understood as status passage control, what Marshall posits as people’s attempts to “seek not only to make sense of themselves as dying but also to gain whatever control they can over the dying process, death itself, and in some cases, the afterlife” (p. 124). Similarly, Robert Butler’s (1963) notion of the life review, or the attempt by an individual who is dying or close to death to make sense of his or her past life and choices, is another type of biographical work designed to help the individual find meaning and purpose to a past life while reducing death anxiety. All of these practices are means by which the self experiences objectification—practices that offer “a sense of continuity to personal experience” (Hewitt 1989:185).

Finally, the work of symbolic immortality, inasmuch as it incorporates the tools of impression management (Goffman 1959, 1967) in building a positive postself identity, personifies a type of “biographical work” (Gubrium and Buckholdt 1977) wherein individuals, through mindful reflexiveness, take into account the perceptions that other people have of them, accept or alter those perceptions through the conscious manipulation of interactional props, and, in so doing, negotiate new public biographies (Gubrium and Buckholdt 1977) for current interactions and for future encounters that others will have with their postselves.

The Immortal Self in Phenomenology

Phenomenological sociology, which traces its roots to the German social philosopher Edmund Husserl, is principally concerned with describing the world as seen through the consciousness of individuals. Alfred Schutz (1962) reasons that the phenomenological task is that of describing the “life-worlds,” or consciousness, of individuals. He argues that “our problem, however, is not what occurs to man as a psychophysiological unit, but the attitude he adopts toward these occurrences—briefly, the subjective meaning man bestows upon certain experiences of his own spontaneous life” (p. 120). In essence, Schutz asserts that the goal of phenomenology is to understand the meanings or typifications that people attribute to their experiences. Phenomenology places a premium on discovering how individuals construct and interpret the social world in their minds. Although only in-depth phenomenology can uncover the meaning behind the work to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality for an individual—for instance, the catalyzing motives that drive an individual to acquire this sense—phenomenology does propose some essential concepts that underscore this drive.

In purely phenomenological terms, the work to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality is seen as a by-product of an individual’s symbolic universe, or those symbols that an individual uses to “refer to realities other than those of everyday experience” (Berger and Luckmann 1966:95). This universe, in addition to containing the entire biography and social history of the individual, helps the individual to organize and make sense of biographical experiences in the process of meaning making. And it is the meaning-making function of this universe that is important to the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality. For Berger and Luckmann (1966), achieving a sense of symbolic immortality is certainly under the purview of a person’s symbolic universe, because the primary role of the symbolic universe is to assuage death anxiety—a latent benefit that the achievement of symbolic immortality certainly provides. Commenting on the foremost function of the symbolic universe, Berger and Luckmann propose:

The legitimation of death is, consequently, one of the most important fruits of symbolic universes … All legitimations of death must carry out the same essential task—they must enable the individual to go on living in society after the death of significant others and to anticipate his own death with, at the very least, terror sufficiently mitigated so as to not paralyze the continued performance of everyday life … It is in the legitimation of death that the transcending potency of symbolic universes manifests itself most clearly, and the fundamental terror-assuaging character of the ultimate legitimations of the paramount reality of everyday life is revealed. (P. 101)

If applied to the work of achieving a sense of symbolic immortality, an individual’s symbolic universe, according to Berger and Luckmann, is principally responsible for situating the death phenomenon within the biographical complex, transforming it from a taken-for-granted reality to an active and omnipresent aspect of biography and sociality that the individual must address. And the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality, whether through biological, creative, religious, natural, or experiential transcendence means, is the mechanism that the symbolic universe employs in dealing with death apprehension.

Finally, one wonders, from a phenomenological perspective, if the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality is a distinctly modern phenomenon linked to the need, whether real or perceived, to preserve our individualism. Georg Simmel, in an essay titled “Individual and Society in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Views of Life,” was the first sociologist to distinguish the new individualism that was born during the Industrial Revolution. Simmel (1950) argues: “The new individualism might be called qualitative, in contrast with the quantitative individualism of the eighteenth century. Or it might be called the individualism of uniqueness [Einzigkeit] as against that of singleness [Einzelheit]” (p. 81). For Simmel, there was something unique about the industrial personality: Those with this personality measure their individualism not by comparing themselves with social others for sameness, but rather by contrasting their personal uniqueness to that of others for difference. This new individualism is one that defines the self through peculiarities and singleness (Simmel 1950:82). This simple observation on the new personality that emerged in industrial societies raises a profound implication for the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality; namely, is the quest to acquire a sense of symbolic immortality merely the personality’s reaction against death’s erosion of that unique identity—the qualitative personality?

The existential phenomenology of Jean-Paul Sartre proposes an answer to this quandary. In an incisive essay titled “My Death,” Sartre (1956:693) suggests that the distinctive feature of the dead life is how it strips the once vibrant, or qualitative, personality of its uniqueness and singularity. The peculiar feature of the dead life is the homogeneity it represents: You can live your life as you like and express your unique individuality at will, but upon death, your agency—that qualitative individualism—is lost forever. For Sartre, the dead life marks the erosion of the individual’s personality in order that the individual may be reconstituted with the whole dead collective. Although Sartre does recognize the possibility of living on in the memories of others as a “reconstituted life,” the inevitable fate for most personalities is a homologation into the quantitative, dead life identity (p. 693). And it is this that might impel many individuals to seek a sense of symbolic immortality for their unique, qualitative personalities—to defeat the anxieties of what the dead life personifies: to be forgotten! Accordingly, Sartre notes:

Thus the very existence of death alienates us wholly in our own life to the advantage of the Other. To be dead is to be prey for the living. This means therefore that the one who tries to grasp the meaning of his future must discover himself as the future prey of others….In this sense, to die is to be condemned no matter what ephemeral victory one has won over the Other; even if one has made use of the Other to “sculpture one’s own statue,” to die is to exist only through the Other, and to owe him one’s meaning and the very meaning of one’s victory. (Pp. 695-96)

The individual’s quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality might well be a reactionary stance against the problems posed by the dead life. Why become prey for the living when you can sculpt your own immortalized postself through one, or all, of the five death-transcending paths? Why lose your unique qualitative personality in death by becoming one of the dead masses? In essence, from a phenomenological point of view, our pursuit of a sense of symbolic immortality is grounded in our need to preserve our unique consciousness and individuality, and to be remembered as we wish.


In this chapter, we have argued that the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality has a great deal of importance to sociology and is an area that is easily applicable to some core ideas in social theory. Our treatment of the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality in various sociological traditions shows the relevance of this underutilized concept to theories on the development of the self in late modernity. The work to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality is work that is deeply sociological and that bears profound implications for our understanding of the development of the social self, both in this life and beyond. Thus, as long as individuals are actively working to procure a sense of immortality for their postmortal selves, their identities do not cease to exist after their corporeal demise. Moreover, their corporeal demise does not preclude postmortal interactions with loved ones left behind. Sociological theories on the development of the self have important contributions to make to our understanding of the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality.

Finally, in analyzing the relevance of this concept to sociological theory, we have encountered questions to which sociological inquiry should attend. One of the gifts of sociology is the attention it pays to issues of social inequality by posing both critical and reflexive questions on the roles of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and other such social identities. The sociology of the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality must, of course, consider the impact that the aforementioned social identities are having on actualizing that goal. It is not surprising, then, that sociology’s failure to consider the immortalized postself seriously has left open and unexplored questions concerning access barriers to a sense of symbolic immortality by race, ethnicity, social class, and gender. Nowhere is this omission as prominent as in the current scholarly literature on symbolic immortality. This gap in the literature suggests that inequality issues are irrelevant to the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality. And yet, as death notices in newspapers suggest, social inequalities—particularly those associated with gender—tend to persist even after death (Kastenbaum, Peyton, and Kastenbaum 1977; Moremen and Cradduck 1998-99; Spilka, Lacey, and Gelb 1979). Still, only scant attention is paid to these critical issues. Thus the sociology of the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality might also make a substantial contribution here. Some possible questions for future research are as follows:

  1. Do we find the same drive to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality across all human societies, or are there differences by nationality, culture, or subculture? For instance, do individuals in postindustrial societies express different motives and drives for their quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality than do individuals in industrial and/or agrarian societies?
  2. How do structural factors such as race, ethnicity, social class, and gender affect people’s quests to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality?
  3. What happens when the pathways to a sense of symbolic immortality are unavailable to large groups of people because they have certain social identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, gender, disability, sexuality)?
  4. The work to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality has been described as an individual’s quest for selfpreservation beyond life. From a sociological point of view, the question arises: Is the need to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality ever expressed as a collective or an institutional need? If so, how are collective quests to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality different from or similar to the ways individuals pursue this goal? Moreover, are the motivations to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality similar at the collective and individual levels?

These are but a few of the questions that remain unexplored—areas that have been the historical purview of sociological inquiry. Thus herein lies the goal of a sociological theory of the quest to achieve a sense of symbolic immortality: that we might better understand the need for, and work toward, identity preservation in this life and beyond, and the many social impediments that individuals and groups encounter as they strive to achieve this end.