Alternative title and main thesis: the fear of the unknown as a reason to fear death is based on bad epistemology.
I couldn’t phrase that to have quite the same ring as Shakespeare was able to, but then again, I am only an amateur philosopher-wannabe.
Nevertheless, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, I think, neatly sums up why most (maybe not all) people fear death: they don’t know what happens when you die. To put this in very abstract terms: people fear death because they have no epistemological access to death.
Sounds plausible, except it’s completely wrong.
Myth: We don’t know what happens when people die.
Fact: We do know what happens when people die.
Elaboration: Death is the complete cessation of all biological functions. The mechanics are fairly simple: some phenomenon occurs that cuts off oxygen to the brain, and if this lack of oxygen happens for long enough, your brain ceases to function, and when it ceases function, it shuts down your entire biological process. And presto, death!
The 799 pound gorilla in the room: Do you got soul? And not just the kind with which to get funky either, but the kind that is a common feature of Abrahamic religions. Some common characteristics are: an incorporeal substance apart from a physical body that persists forever, regardless of what happens to the physical body.
I don’t want to say definitively that the soul, as characterized thus, doesn’t exist, but I’m going to say that when you take into consideration all available evidence, it is highly unlikely that the soul (characterized thus) exists. So if you believe this, which I think you should have good reason to, then you can’t really claim that you don’t know what happens during and after death, because science has pretty much figured out what death is, completely.
So what do we know: we know that, absent the extremely improbably existence of a soul, death consists entirely of the cessation of all biological functions. It is as simple as that. There is no great epistemological quandary here, so I think it is bad faith to say that one fears death because one doesn’t know what happens after death. Of course one knows what happens after: nothing! That’s the definition of death.
Well, if you want to get technical: something does happen to your body (not you, the distinction is a very important one) dies. Depending on how people handle your death, you either start decomposing into the earth in which your body is buried, or your body is incinerated by fire and your body become ashes.
An aside: I have heard, on more than one occasion, avowed atheists who profess to commit to a scientific epistemology, argue that the soul can exist. I would normally think that someone who’s a committed naturalist would disavow substance dualism altogether, so the only explanation that I can come up with is psychological: they simply do not want to acknowledge that once your body dies, you die.
A qualification: Note that I did not say that the fear of death is wholly unjustified, but only that fear of the unknown is an insufficient reason to justify the fear of death. There might be justified reasons to fear death, but that’s stuff for another post.