“The weather was warm and he was buried, with indecent haste, in one of the public cemeteries…on the Sunday following…an intense excitement was created by the declaration of a peasant that, while sitting on the grave, he had distinctly felt a commotion of the earth, as if occasioned by someone struggling beneath…spades were hurriedly procured, and the grave … was, in a few minutes, so far thrown open that the head of its occupant appeared…he was pronounced to be still living.”
Of all the gothic authors obsessed with the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe remains preeminent – the previous quote from “The Premature Burial” is evidence of his mastery.
Scholars have marveled at his powerful narratives: it has been postulated that Poe, despite his addictions, had a superior understanding of human fear, particularly the fear of being alone.
Poe’s characters often suffer the most ignominious fates, most frequently on their own. They are trapped in graves, below floorboards, and tied beneath razor-sharp, swinging pendulums in a solitary state. Even survivors in Poe’s stories face lonely, grim agonies of despair.
“From childhood’s hour, I have not been as others were…all I loved, I loved alone,” Poe wrote in one his poems.
Explaining this theme, another author, Noble winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez, said that Poe understood that there is no greater misfortune than dying alone.
Even though Poe passed away in 1849, the psychology of his work is much in the modern: in today’s terminology, monatophobia is the fear of dying alone, monophobia is the fear of living alone and thanatophobia is the fear of dying. A three of a kind set of phobias that still plague humanity.
Given the quality and gravity of these fears, Poe might find it ironic that today in our culture (and in other free societies, such as Japan) more people are living alone and more people are dying alone than ever. Globally, two hundred seventy seven million now live alone.
28 percent of America’s households are occupied by one person. That is up from 13 percent in 1960 — a year when today’s seniors were growing up.
In total, over thirty five million people in this country live by themselves. 61 percent of those would prefer to continue to do so as they age (provided at some point, a non-live-in caretaker could help them out).
In Japan, the number of single occupancy households is closing in on 40 percent.
The country is actually shrinking: with birth rates consistently down, the population is becoming top heavy. And people there are alone — one in four Japanese over the age of 65 lives on their own.
Social isolation in Japan has become a very serious issue: one study estimates that one-half million elderly people only have meaningful social interaction every six months.
This has created an industry where “lonely deaths” (Kodokushi — a Japanese term which refers to dying alone and remaining undiscovered for a time) have to be dealt with by specialty cleaning crews. It’s not a small business either: the Japanese spend more than $4 billion dollars a year tending to these unfortunate victims.
So what accounts for all this living alone? Have we become so self-absorbed that there is no room for anyone else in our lives?
Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, an expert on these matters, says that there is a distinction between living alone and being alone. He notes that economic freedom is now possible on a scale never before imagined — until the 1950’s, no society in the history of the species could economically support going solo. One out of two households in Manhattan today is occupied by a single person; financial considerations have made this feasible. And these singles, through work and social media, are experiencing life in a community.
“People will live alone whenever and wherever they can afford to do it,” he concludes.
The changing nature of marriage pertains here as well. Half of American marriages end in divorce, a number which has recently been holding steady. But after 1990, the incidence of “gray divorce,” i.e., divorce at an older age, has doubled.
Marriage is being delayed, mostly for career issues, these days. On average, both men and women are exchanging rings seven years later than they did fifty years ago.
Putting all of these demographic and sociological trends together, the probability of dying by yourself is increasing.
A statistician, analyzing this data, suggested three possible scenarios to avoid passing away alone: 1) die young; 2) have plenty of children; 3) build a strong social support network.
While the chances of being buried alive or burning in the House of Usher are the stuff of fiction, the reality is many of us will go into the great goodnight by ourselves. Statistics indicate that this is an unfortunate social condition not soon to change.