…on heidegger’s being-towards-death

thumbnailCAZMDSJP  (click on images to enlarge)

Ricky Swallow “The Exact Dimensions of Staying Behind” English Limewood, 2005.

“In care the being of dasein is included.” (B&T 231) This ‘care’ is primordial, before all other manifestations of “will, wish, addiction & urge.” (B&T 183) ‘Care’ is enmeshed with being. The anxiety about death is grown from ‘care.’ As there is a willingness to be a part of the world, we are caregivers with/for our being. The question of being is ontological. We are looking at death with Heidegger in his book Being & Time* as the end structure of being & as it is understood within one’s existence. Other ways of purposing being in a scientific manner, have resolved with what to do with the ontic, but are then be to be compared, challenged, questioned & implemented into the ontological, that is, a philosophical explanation of being (‘dasein’ translated as ‘being-there’). Heidegger’s philosophy is phenomenological & hermeneutical. His is a hermeneutical interpretation of being, starting with the ‘everyday’ & moving into being’s distinctive questions, such as: how being is placed in time. “Everydayness reveals itself as a mode of temporality.” (B&T 235) If being is to be considered within temporality, death becomes (& is) an essential structural component for the life of the individual, as a fact (ontic & ‘existentiell’ contrasted with ontological & existential). Roughly, the bare facts of life are held with how that being understands & interprets those facts within time, existentially.

thinking about the end

Manfred Erjautz “Thinking about the end as a beginning 1” 2004, neon & steel.

“Existence means a potentiality-for-being—but also one which is authentic.” (B&T 233) ‘Authenticity’ is basically defined as being that is fully recognized entirely as mine & as full potentiality. Being’s possibility is ‘authentically’ mine. We’ll look later to how this is set-up with ‘inauthenticity’ & how it’s a fundamental key to a perception of our life towards death. “But as something of the character of dasein, death is only in an existentiell being-towards-death.” (B&T 234). So, while ‘dasein’ is ‘being there’ in a state of continuous possibility, it also must end factually, & with death our lives are rendered ‘whole.’ Life is not the whole story till we die. “As long as dasein is, there is in every case something which is still outstanding, which dasein can be & will be; but to that which is thus outstanding, the ‘end’ itself belongs. The ‘end’ of being-in-the-world is death.” (B&T 234) It is our having a conscience that calls into question the issue of death for ourselves.


Félicien Rops  Illustration for “Les Epaves” by Charles Baudelaire, 1866.

Heidegger speaks of a history, implied with the temporal nuances of one’s past & how that past is played out in the present moment—broadly defined: the history of our being. I am living out what has past & I’m full of potential for the future on until my death, as I exist forward until my death. Let us keep in mind that Heidegger’s existential analysis is secular & does not address a religious context for being or being towards an afterlife &c. This does not exclude a reading to find religious affinities within his text. Any possible ‘spiritual’ connections will be left for another time.


Marianne Hildebrand “Sterbebildchen” (memorial cards, date unknown).

Heidegger sees ‘dasein’s’ ‘wholeness’ to be a question of death. The finitude of ‘dasein’ makes the grasping life whole, finally. As we’ve seen care & ‘dasein’ are bound together, & care pushes ‘dasein’ “ahead-of-itself.” (B&T 236) ‘Care’ creates for ‘dasein’ a manifest of possibility. Possibility is always mine, even in the last moments before death. “But as soon as dasein ‘exists’ in such a way that absolutely nothing more is still outstanding in it, then it has already for this very reason become ‘no-longer-being-there.’” (B&T 237) Being cannot be death. Death is the absence of being. “When dasein reaches its wholeness in death, it simultaneously loses the being of its ‘there.’” (B&T 237)

mc and mc

McDermott & McGough “FLAMES OF JEALOUSY” 1964, 2007 Oil on wood

As ‘dasein’ is presented with the death of others, this is experienced in its barest sense as their death & is not mine. We can still observe in others that death is the end of being, the end of their being. Their being is no longer present. However there is still a leftover, residual, &/or legacy of their lives that serve as reminders of the dead. The dead are (usually) not rendered as useless objects once they have died. “The dying of others is not something which we experience in a genuine sense, at most we are always just ‘there alongside.’” (B&T 239) In other words, we cannot truly (existentially) experience the death of another, because their death is exclusively theirs, as our death is exclusively our own. Heidegger does state that we, or someone else, can ‘represent’ another to die for us. We’ll imagine the case of a soldier placing himself heroically to die in the place of his fellow soldier, but, the then living soldier still must die his own death someday. “No one can take the other’s dying away from him.” (B&T 240) Just as ‘dasein’ is mine, death is also mine, it belongs to the “mineness” of being. (B&T 240) To decease is different from merely perishing, as is understood consciously by us & the individual. Again, we are not simply things that end, we are humans that die. We, or Heidegger wouldn’t be discussing the matter is it were otherwise.


Franz Kapfer “Heldenhalle” photograph (ca. 2006)

For the living, death is “still outstanding.” (B&T 242) Death is always ‘not yet’ for ‘dasein.’ Continuing into this ontological/phenomenological structure of an understanding of death, we’ll see it as ‘not yet’ here. “In dasein there is undeniably a constant ‘lack of totality’ which finds an end with death” (B&T 242) This ‘not yet’ cannot be seen as a deficiency, like a sum of things to be gathered in the future & nor is a life made whole when all the parts have been gathered. For example, it is easily observed that a person can die before he has a chance to be an adult & to accomplish personal goals & so forth. In this example it can be seen that the person’s life continued to be a ‘not yet’ even before the early death. “Even ‘unfulfilled’ dasein ends.” (B&T 244) Heidegger warns that seeing life as an object to be added to & used like a tool is similar to perceiving it as ‘ready-to-hand’ & ‘present-to-hand.’ We are not objects, so a thing has categorial determinations & ‘dasein’ has existential determinations, such as the subject of this exploration of being. “In death, dasein has not been fulfilled nor has it simply disappeared; it has not become finished nor is it wholly at one’s disposal as something ready-to-hand.” (B&T 245) The ‘not yet’ of ‘dasein’ is the ‘not yet’ death of being, which renders it whole. “As soon as man comes to life, he is once old enough to die.” (B&T 245) When we are born, we are existentially locked into the cycle of birth & death. We have always known that death is intrinsic for our own being & we’ll see later that this death-certainty can be obscured too. It is not till we try to understand what death is, that we can then start to take on an understanding of ‘dasein.’ A perception of death’s finality, informs life.


Jan Fabre “SKULL WITH BUDGERIGAR” 2000, Jewel beetle, click beetle and ground beetle shields on synthetic material with budgerigar.

That death is always “something still outstanding”  for dasein, (B&T 246) is the kind of realization that is based in ‘care,’ as life moving forward in time & as our lives pushing ahead & always propelling toward the end. We have already pointed out that Heidegger separates any reading of the spiritual & mystical as relating to death. Any talk of what might happen ‘after death,’ is left aside, but not dismissed outright. 


René Magritte “Madame Rêcamier” 1967, bronze.

Now look to “…how dasein’s existence, facticity & falling reveal themselves in the phenomena of death.” (B&T 250) Being is not always aware of its ‘thrownness,’ but when it is it is said to be this way, in anxiety. We’ll see an anxiety over the basic contingencies of life, over its ‘thrownness.’ ‘Thrownness’ reveals the facticity of life to ‘dasein.’ ‘Dasein’s’ existence is ‘thrown’ here, not as a thing, but as its own factual & specific being. So this “…anxiety in the face of death, is anxiety ‘in the face of’ that potentiality-for-being which is one’s ownmost, non-relational, & [is] not to be outstripped.” (B&T 251) Let us say that this ‘non relational’ quality of death has to do with the bare way that death is exclusively our own. Therefore, ‘being-toward-death’ is looked upon with anxiety. We are thrown here & must someday leave, a careful anxiety is how this is disclosed to us.

All this talk about an awareness of ‘being-towards-the-end’ should not assume that everyone will be aware of death in the same way, or even at all. One can live in ignorance of death. Indeed, in life we can be blind to death’s certainty. This unawareness, whether provisional or permanent for an individual, is named by Heidegger as ‘falling.’ This can be a ‘falling’ away from our concern for ‘being-towards death,’ & is instead focused on the circumstantial (yet also necessary) features of life. We are ‘inauthentically’ falling away from our ‘authenticity.’


Jan Janz Treck “Vanitas still life” 1648, oil on oak.

Holding to the idea that while Heidegger is looking deeply into the structure of ‘dasein,’ we’ll notice that he’s simultaneously wanting us to observe this through an ‘everyday’ temporality. This ‘everydayness’ plays a part in the ‘inauthentic’ way by which we observe death. This is where we find ‘the they.’ The ‘they’ self is closely attached to the everyday. We’ll see ‘the they’ as people in our day-to-day environment that can obscure our own death from our ‘dasein.’ Basically a kind of public distancing of death from the everyday you. This ‘inauthenticity’ is seen as a pushing away of our own personal death thoughts. ‘One will die at some other time & death is something I don’t talk about much in polite company, therefore it has no bearing on my life. One doesn’t engage morbidity… & so on.’ This inauthenticity of ‘the they’ conceals ‘being-toward-death’ as ‘dasein’s’ ‘ownmost possibility.’


Lucinda Devlin “Final Holding Cell, Indiana State Prison, Michigan City, Indiana” 1991, Chromogenic Print.

To be clear, these ideas of the ‘authentic’ & ‘inauthentic’ must not be viewed as the beginnings of a Heideggarian system of ethics. Instead we’d do well to observe the two (‘authenticity’/’inauthenticity’) as the obverse & reverse of a single coin, a single life. To identify someone as ‘inauthentic’ is not a judgment call to reform one’s life to a monastery of ‘authenticity.’ Still ‘they’ propel an attitude of life that is a “constant tranquilization about death.” (B&T 254) This ‘tranquilization’ serves as a way to console the living & the dying. Understandably, a general attitude is, that death should be avoided. This presents obvious problems with our attitude about death, for surely one cannot see Heidegger’s ideas as a call to prioritize death over life with a ghoulish abandon. With all this in mind it is clear that a certainty about death is insistently needed  to see life’s potential, instead of a deathly preoccupation. Keep in mind that Heidegger’s search is for truth (termed ‘aletheia,’ but not specifically named as such, in these chapters). “But ‘truth’ signifies the uncoverdness of some entity & all uncoverdness is grounded ontologically in the most primordial truth, the disclosedness of dasein.” (B&T 256) We are trying to find the truth of ‘dasein’ in that we must acknowledge death as something being lives toward. We have seen that ‘dasein’ can conceal truth & in this revelation it can be said that ‘dasein’ can also be in states of untruth concerning its being. We can lie to ourselves about death & we don’t want to always believe that we’ll die. Conversely if we are to look for the truth, we’ll find the certainty of death muddled somewhere in the everyday.


“Black Kites,” Gabriel Orozco, 1997, Human skull and graphite.

If we’ve already seen death as a fact & if we’ve seen this truth as a certainty in its ‘utmost possibility,’ we’ll then need to recognize what is implicit here, that is “…to project itself [as] its ownmost potentiality-for-being, means to be able to understand itself in the being of the entity so revealed—namely, to exist. Anticipation turns out to be the possibility of understanding one’s ownmost & uttermost potentiality–for-being—that is to say authentic existence.” (B&T 263) This is where Heidegger makes the all-important connection between dasein’s ‘authentic’ recognition of the ‘utmost possibility’ of death as it vividly relates to the possibility for being itself. Importantly the individual has to summon this ‘authenticity,’ arising out of his own certainty of death.       

We’ll let Heidegger summarize & close-out this examination with his idea of the ‘authentic’ ‘being-towards-death.’ “…anticipation reveals to dasein its lostness in the they-self, & brings it face to face with the possibility of being itself, primarily unsupported by concernful solicitude, but of being itself, rather, in an impassioned freedom towards death—a freedom which has been released from the illusions of the ‘they,’ & which is factical, certain of itself & anxious.” (B&T 267)


Michelangelo Pistoletto “Mirror Coffin” (date unknown).

The ontical ‘being-towards-death’ becomes the existential/ontological ‘freedom-towards-death,” held with the ‘potentiality-for-being.”

Aurelio Madrid

*Heidegger, Martin, Being & Time, trans. Macquarrie & Robinson, Harper Collins, San Francisco, 1962.

2 thoughts on “…on heidegger’s being-towards-death

  1. Hello! I have been searching for the source for that mirrored coffin image with no luck until now. It can be attributed to Michelangelo Pistoletto? Can you tell me where you sourced the information from? I don’t mean to come across as though I am challenging you regarding the data, but I just want to make absolutely certain this is the answer I have been looking for. Thank you so much!

    1. …yes, this is an artwork of Pistoletto’s. to be honest I cannot remember where I found the image. I had to really work to find it with google. I do remember that the coffins were included in an important show curated by Joseph Kosuth at the ‘Wiener Secession’ http://www.secession.at/ in the early 90’s. Very little is to be found on the coffins themselves. As you can see, I couldn’t link to where I found ’em because there was no info on that site. wish I could help more.

      …& thanks for dropping by.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s