Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg, Professors of Social Psychology
Unlike other animals, humans understand the inevitability of their own death. Also unlike other animals, we have a brain that can imagine a world in which we are no longer alive. Psychologists believe this understanding is critical to the question of why humans surround themselves with images of death so much.
JG: "… only human beings realize that at some point they will die."
SS: "…And how that sort of violates so much of what we're doing… that we're trying to stay alive, we're trying to thrive and yet we know inevitably it'll be thwarted."
The knowledge that we are going to die and that there is nothing we can do about it is terrifying. But psychologists theorize that through the use of art, there is a way of easing this fear, and coming to terms with our own death.
SS: "… what art does is take the natural world and give us some control over it, by refashioning the world around us in our own image."
By creating images of our ancestors, we are reassuring ourselves that death isn't so bad after all.
SS: "That is the psychological impetus for its creation: your father and your grandfather and your mom and your grandmother are still very much with you even though they don't appear to be moving around as much as they did in the past."
Through experimentation, psychologists discovered that groups of subjects who had been made to think about death wanted to look at pictures of the dead far longer than groups who hadn't. It was as though seeing pictures of people who had died reassured them that they, in turn, would one day be remembered too.