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Death and Identity


Explanations > Identity > Death and Identity

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After death, what happens to identity?

Forgoing discussions of spirituality, soul, afterlife and reincarnation, the identity that is perceived by others can persist in various ways.

Temporal anchoring

Identity is situated in time. When we think of a historic figure or maybe somebody we knew who has died, we mentally put them into a period in time, where the other associations of that time give them context and anchored meaning.

The death of a young person anchors them as young forever. Marilyn Monroe is thus forever beautiful and tortured and Jimi Hendrix a brilliant young dope-head. In the tragedy of children dying, their parents live forever with the ghost-identity of a young child.

Identities get exaggerated after death as we idealize and stereotype the dearly departed. Loved ones become even more loved as we forget their blemishes and despots become more despised as their evil deeds deepen with each telling.

Death freezes and authenticates affection. The person can no longer do wrong and can be idealized.


Freud described two fundamental life and death human drives: libidinal energy (Eros), which includes sexual and creative motivation, and the death drive (Thanatos), which makes us seek both calm and ultimate non-existence.

We define ourselves through others. When people die, we thus are losing a part of ourselves. We are no longer able to look at them and see ourselves, reflected in their perception. We thus mourn a loss of a part of ourselves.

Madeleine and the movies

In Hitchcock's 'Vertigo', Madeleine is a graceful and worshiped woman who tragically dies. Unable to accept her loss, the hero keeps looking for her and finds, Judy, a look-alike. But whilst Madeleine was sophisticated, Judy is a painted commoner. The hero then sets about transforming her, Pygmalion-like, into a reincarnated Madeleine. The identity of 'Madeleine' thus lives on, first in the mind of the hero and subsequently in Judy-Madeleine, the clay golem he recreates. When Judy then dies, the true extent of his loss is hammered home and the identity of Madeleine is located firmly in the past.

But what becomes of Judy during her transformation into Madeleine? There seems to be an identity that is dying before our eyes as the new Madeleine asserts herself.

Movies separate us from reality, enabling us to gaze in on life and death.

See also

Masks, Life and death drives, Movies and identity

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