Our Hypocrisy in Not Talking About Death

A friend of mine shared this evocative quotation with me spoken by the protagonist in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward:

“Come on, tell us, what are you most afraid of in the world now? Of dying! What are you most afraid of talking about? Of death! And what do we call that? Hypocrisy!”

It may take reading those lines over a few of times in order to be startled by them.

At first glance, there seems to be no contradiction between being terribly afraid of something AND not talking about it.

But then there is an indictment, a rebuke – this is “Hypocrisy!”


The word “hypocrisy” is derived from the Greek word hypokrisis which denotes acting on the stage; pretense; to play a part, and to pretend.

To be afraid of dying (note: Solzhenitsyn’s character specifies the fear of dying, not of death) and then not to talk about it is to play the part of not being afraid; it is to pretend in such a way as to conceal.

Nowadays we are afraid of dying – it’s why we are doing everything we can to prevent deaths by COVID-19. At the same time, we are afraid to talk about death. Our greatest concern remains our greatest taboo.

This may not seem like a contradiction to us but I think Solzhenitsyn is illuminating that it is hypocrisy not to talk about what we think about most. To talk about what we are afraid of is honesty.

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