Symbolic Immortality: Thoughts About the Future

We can all imagine and anticipate concerns about our death. Considering our own mortality necessarily brings with it feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. Death represents both the physical and mental annihilation of life. Most human hope is for the future immortality of our philosophy, our deeds and our soul.

The term symbolic immortality as coined by Harvard psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, MD, refers to what remains from our lives after death. These may be material, such as what we have built, created, or given birth to, or ephemeral, such as our thoughts, our values, our jokes, or our network of friendships. Freud, for example, after sixteen years of treatment for the painful and humiliating symptoms of mouth cancer, was more concerned about the possible loss of his theories than the loss of his life. His hope for symbolic immortality was that his theories would live on after his death. Jung, a Protestant visionary, on the other hand, believed both in the pre-modern and modern Christian hope of resurrection and immortality. He was more concerned about the state of his soul.

The Four Types of Symbolic Immortality

Although there are four types of Symbolic Immortality, the first three are the most universal.

1. Biologic Symbolic Immortality

Most people feel that even after dying, there can be hope for an afterlife, with an immortal soul: This belief relies on the continuity of a family’s heritage and the passing of memories from generation to generation. Biological symbolic immortality continues after one’s death through the meaning of their life which will continue as one’s spirit lives on through one’s children, grandchildren and family, emphasizing history, memories, stories and one’s philosophy of life.

We’d like to transmit our thoughts and values to our family, children and future generations before we die so they will live on as our heritage. The five parts of the Legacy Project work in conjunction to help you reflect on your own cultural and ethical values, including information about your social inheritance and achievements reflecting the values of our family. Our biologic symbolic immortality legacy is a continuation of our lives through our descendants after we die.

2. Theological or Religious Symbolic Immortality

The belief in life after death is seen in most religions and spiritual practices. The family’s belief in a higher authority is symbolized, for example, by the clergy of Western religions, or Shinto Buddhism, and also seen in the power of leaders and kings of the Roman, Greek and Egyptian empires. Buddha, Moses, Christ, and Muhammad all combine spiritual revelations with ethical principles. The afterlife, with an immortal soul, is an ancient mythological theme, involving death, rebirth and resurrection. Life after death, however, is not a traditional view in Jewish or Buddhist religious philosophies.

Often facing a life-threatening illness will cause a person to think more critically about the role of faith in their life and to question the existence of an afterlife.

3. Creative Symbolic Immortality

When one is creative through either art, literature, a great discovery in science or in doing a humble benevolent, kind act for someone in need, one has also created an example of creative symbolic immortality. In this way one escapes death by living afterwards through acts and accomplishments that will be remembered for generations and possibly centuries. The creative domain can truly leave a long-term legacy; consider, for instance, Leonardo Da Vinci's creation of the Mona Lisa—this one act will have everlasting creative symbolic immortality. Physicians, nurses, psychiatrists, teachers and others often provide another form of creative symbolic immortality through their acts which make a difference in other people’s lives.

From this point of view, being creative through benevolence can make a lasting difference in another person’s life. Each individual has the capacity to influence and help change another’s future. In one of the Life Tape interviews, a patient remarked about a friend: “Her goodwill towards people in general, and her family, is something I really admire and have learned from—and other people have as well.†Thus the recipient of a kindness may not only have their status improved, but hopefully can also help others as well.

4. Symbolic Immortality of Nature

Nature also exemplifies symbolic immortality. It is everywhere and limitless and will survive forever. As an example, following the atomic bomb explosions in Japan in 1945 the trees appeared dead, but in the springtime, the cherry blossoms came back, reflecting the ability of nature to regenerate. In a sense, we participate in eternity through our appreciation and understanding of the persistent life and death cycles of nature.

Expressions of the first three of the four symbolic immortality domains were evident in Life Tape interviews we conducted. The patients’ values, achievements and thoughts were recalled and recorded to pass on to future generations, providing a continuation of their lives and values to be remembered after their death by their descendants.

How Symbolic Immortality Informs the Legacy Project

Participants in the Legacy Project appreciated the psychological and emotional value of symbolic immortality, which helped promote their feelings of their continuity with the future by identifying their ties to the family, and through their biologic, religious, spiritual and creative acts in art, science or benevolent support.

Focusing on the ideas of symbolic immortality helps many participants deal with death by reducing their anxiety about their death, as well as promoting their feeling of well- being and appreciation of their life. It also promotes better interfamily relationships through improved communication and emotional support, and decreased isolation and anxiety. In addition, participants can have a better sense of self-worth and improved understanding of their life experience. And, finally, it also promotes dignity and closure, helping support palliative care, if needed, for a better quality of life at the end of life.