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Elgee, N.J. (2003). Laughing at Death. Psychoanal. Rev., 90(4):475-497.

(2003). Psychoanalytic Review, 90(4):475-497

Laughing at Death

Neil J. Elgee

Death anxiety is the first cause of laughter. As self-conscious creatures we live deeply rooted in incongruity: the knowledge that we die. Our sense of humor enables us not only to exist in this predicament but also to play with it to our advantage. The existential joke is on all of us, but usually we use humor to ostracize, even savagely, as we project death's curse onto others. We can, however, become self-realized as we appreciate the denial of death that is built into the fabrications of our cultural belief systems. We become able to view our illusions ironically. Humor in the service of faith and grace can be affiliative rather than ostracizing, and serve to disarm fundamentalism.

We play with death anxiety in the many expressions of humor. This is a concept that first occurred to me from reading Ernest Becker, whose writings made me increasingly aware of how vital a motivator the denial of death is in human emotions, thought, and behavior. Our sense of humor, our laughter, the comic in all its manifestations, is no exception. Becker says:

… the laughter: this is really a reflection of a very advanced stage of faith and grace, and it's another thing the youth do not understand. It is deadly earnest to them, this world they face, and they simply cannot laugh without making some kind of triumph over it. Perhaps when and if they succeed in getting back on the road, getting over some of their alienation, they might understand the smile and the laugh, (quoted in Bates, 1977, p. 224)

… to live is to play at the meaning of life.

(Becker, 1973, p. 201)


Laughter comes suddenly, bursting out, as a momentary rush of pleasure. Peekaboo! Where did Mommy go? Oh! There she is-Smile!-my world is intact after all.

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