The role of possessions in the quest for immortality: Literal and symbolic mechanisms

Author: Segal, Keren

Date: 2019

Publisher: University of Otago

Type: Thesis

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University of Otago


The connection between death and personal possessions is well documented. Archaeological excavations have found that humans have historically buried their dead with the things they owned, often for the purpose of using them in the afterlife. However, even in post-industrial Western societies people continue to bury the dead with objects that are important for the deceased or the survivors, or to cherish such objects as symbols of the person who has died. I suggest that personal possessions can serve a role in helping people manage anxiety about their own death, either symbolically, through the hope that the items will serve as reminders of them in the world, or literally, by the thought that a part of the self can be imbued and live on in an object after death. In four experiments I explored whether and how a focus on significant possessions might relieve death anxiety. Secondary goals were to examine what effect, if any, changes in death anxiety would have on post-experimental religious beliefs and attitudes toward wills. Study 1 showed that when people are primed with their mortality they tend to recall items that are more sentimental to them, rather than items that have higher monetary value. Study 2 supported the hypothesis that possessions indeed serve as a death anxiety buffer: recalling sentimental objects in a context in which death would naturally be salient, writing a will, decreased death anxiety. Study 3 confirmed that thinking of possessions, rather than thinking of significant people was responsible for the effect, and Study 4 revealed that although death anxiety through possessions generally operates through symbolic mechanisms, such as facilitating memory of the deceased, literal mechanisms may also be effective in reducing death anxiety for religious people. In none of the studies did participants’ essentialist beliefs – that an essential element of themselves can be transferred to object they own or contact –reliably moderate the effects of thinking about possessions, casting further doubt on the literal-immortality interpretation. The studies also revealed that the death buffering function of possessions serves to replace other mechanisms with which people deal with death, such as their religious worldviews. The results also offer practical application by finding that that thinking of possessions as providing immortality increases positive attitudes towards writing a will. Overall, the studies support a weak but replicable benefit of sentimental possessions, and suggest that the benefit accrues, at least among nonreligious people, through symbolic mechanisms, rather than via the literal extension of life. The discussion focuses on the role of possessions’ sentimental value in providing a sense of immortality beyond their monetary value, as well as how the practical applications of the findings could be used in the will writing procedure. Some limitations are addressed, such as the implications of using the chosen measures of death anxiety and religious belief over other measures, and how findings may have differed had different measures been used. Future studies are suggested, in which an experimental design can be employed to manipulate participants’ beliefs in the afterlife prior to examining literal mechanisms of immortality through possessions. Other future studies could examine the nature and function of virtual possessions, such as email and social networking profiles, as providers of literal immortality, or how the notions of immortality through possessions can be channelled towards more environmentally sustainable resources other than mass consumption.

Subjects: possessions, immortality, death-anxiety

Citation: ["Segal, K. (2019). The role of possessions in the quest for immortality: Literal and symbolic mechanisms (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy). University of Otago. Retrieved from"]

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