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The Pornography of Death

When I tell people I’ve written a book about death, hands down, the most common response I receive is laughter.

I take no offense, though. It’s not a cruel, mocking sort of laughter. We joke about death by instinct, the way an eight year old laughs when someone passes gas. It’s socially unacceptable, therefore hilarious.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking on my part, but I take this response as confirmation of a major reason I wrote the book in the first place. Our society has placed a taboo over honest, straightforward talk about death. Perhaps without realizing it, many of us have accepted an unspoken agreement not to go there.

One of the first writers to describe this taboo was a British sociologist named Geoffrey Gorer, writing back in the 1950s. In an essay called “The Pornography of Death,” Gorer suggested that death had become to the twentieth century what sex was to the nineteenth century. Even as the prominence of sex broadened—in conversation, in mainstream television, in what kids are allowed to see and know—death was pushed further out of sight and out of mind. (“The Pornography of Death,” Encounter, October, 1955, 49–52).

This taboo on death is something we impose on our culture, wittingly or not. But the taboo also imposes something on us that we ought to recognize and take seriously. It distorts our view of reality and allows us to live as if death is someone else’s problem.

What the taboo does to us is the deeper insight of Gorer’s essay, and the reason for its provocative title. When you suppress honest talk about basic human experiences, interest in them doesn’t disappear. The interest itself is irrepressible. But that interest bubbles up in perverted forms. With sex you get pornography. With death you get zombie movies.

What porn is to monogamous married sexuality death-on-screen has become to death-in-reality.

Think about it: the deaths shown in our most popular shows and movies are violent deaths. They come to relatively young people who usually aren’t expecting to die. Characters aren’t dying of old age and natural decay. They’re dying because a psychopath, a mafia hit man, or a zombie killed them. You don’t watch these shows for insight into genuine human experience. You watch them to escape from genuine human experience.

Too often where death shows up in popular culture, it belongs to a fantasy world. It’s newsworthy. It’s tragic. It’s psychopathic or maybe apocalyptic. But one way or another, death is exotic. It’s something that happens to someone else.

But death, of course, is not exotic. It’s as basic to human experience as birth, eating and sleeping. The great danger of our taboo on honest talk about death is that it enables self-deception. It feeds a distorted detachment from my own personal mortality.

In our time and place, where death is often banished from polite company, we will struggle to experience the beauty and power of Jesus because we've numbed ourselves to the problem he came to solve. Matt McCullough

Contrast this detachment from death to the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Behind this prayer is the consistent conviction of the Bible: to live well in the world as it is, we have to account for death with honesty. If we’re willing to push through the taboo on death we’ll find wisdom on the other side.

But honesty about death can lead us to something far more precious even than wisdom. This honesty can lead us to Jesus, to a clearer view of his beauty and power, to a deeper awareness of his life-giving relevance to everything we face. We need to overcome our detachment from death so that we can enjoy a deeper attachment to Jesus.

There is a direct correlation between our sensitivity to death’s sting and our ability to savor Jesus’s promises to us.

The gap between the promises of the gospel we affirm and our experience of those promises in life—between what we know and what we know—is a timeless struggle. But what aggravates that gap can vary from culture to culture. In our time and place, where death is often banished from polite company, we will struggle to experience the beauty and power of Jesus because we’ve numbed ourselves to the problem he came to solve.

In John 11, Jesus made resurrection a bedrock promise of the gospel. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (Jn 11:25-26).

But what good is resurrection to those who are living like immortals?

“If death is not a daily reality,” Walter Wangerin has written, “then Christ’s triumph over death is neither daily nor real. Worship and proclamation and even faith itself take on a dream-like, unreal air, and Jesus is reduced to something like a long-term insurance policy, filed and forgotten—whereas he can be our necessary ally, an immediate, continuing friend, the holy destroyer of death and the devil, my own beautiful savior” (Mourning into Dancing, 29-30).

There is a beautiful irony here, with the power to change your life: If we want to enjoy the precious relevance of Jesus in our day-to-day, we need to bring the truth about death into our day-to-day. Death-awareness is our path into the liberating, life-giving truth about Jesus.

When we’re honest about what death means for who we are, for what we hope to accomplish, for everything we love about life—when we’re driven to cry out with Paul, “who will deliver me from this body of death?”—we’re made ready to join with Paul in joyful relief, and to mean it deep down: “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24-25).


Artwork credit: Dawn Waters Baker “To the Lowest Place” 60×48 (inches) on Canvas Available through Waterfall Mansion

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