I was lucky in that few people died during my childhood. The tragedy of that familial longevity is that people are inevitably dropping off like flies now and there is so much pain to deal with over a rather short period of time. So, it's safe to say that death is a topic I have given much thought to.
Although many opportunities were woefully neglected, certainly I am happy for the extra years I have been able to spend with these people. I am also happy that I have been able to completely abandon all belief in heaven, hell, valhala, the North Pole, etc. prior to most of their deaths. When I was a child, Heaven and Hell were considered very real places. The fear of Hell, I think, was more a reason why I continued believing than excitement over Heaven--which sounded horribly boring. A family friend died when I still believed and it tore me apart thinking that he was probably in Hell. My mom had a dream that he had repented moments before he died and that was how she dealt with it. Even then I knew that that was just a sort of cognitive dissidence which thankfully I don't need anymore.
My Dad died nearly a year ago. It was tragic, there's literally not a single day where I don't think about him, but I know for a fact that he is not in hell or anywhere else for that matter. I wish he were alive, but I don't have to worry about him being tortured for the entire rest of eternity. Such things are nonsense and I wish my believing mother could have that comfort. Rather than waste time and stress about what could be happening to him (and all rationality says is not), I can instead concern myself with memories, and trying to make the best of life in his absence.
He will be gone forever, and there are a million things I wish could be different, but my greatest sadness is that my newphew will grow up without his grandpa. The only thing I can do is to let his memory live on through me.
I tend to disagree with your assessment of 'fear'. As far as I can tell, religion itself created the fear of death. When cultural anthropologists study tribal humans who are without religion, these kinds of fears simply do not exist, concepts of imaginary beings do not exist either.
Fear is a tool used that powerful people use to subdue masses, so fears are created, even when/where there should be none.
Death, we die, so what?
Death needs to be de-tabooed, de-sacrified, de-mysteried. (sorry for invented words :)
Celebrate life, and when someone leaves it, celebrate who they WERE in life. Make it your duty to carry their memory with you and keep their gifts in the world.... or something like that.
I couldnt agree more. In teaching my kids about death I found it went right along with teaching them where the atoms come from that combined to make them. They understand that my wish to be creamated stems from my desire to get those atoms back into circulation when my life is over.
I think my kids and I both take great comfort in this knowledge. And the fact that they can keep some of my atoms close to them for the rest of their life also seems to give comfort to loss they will have to one day except.
They are not free from all fear... if a large predator prances into camp at night, moms fear for their child's safety, as does any animal. It's the general assessment of fear without a concrete causal agent. I look at your definition and I see that your version of religion is the result of a populist push, which I totally disagree with. Religion does not originate, as far as I can tell, from "the masses". I see it only as a tool, that wiser people (surprisingly?) discovered. A tool for mass manipulation and control, which utilises a weakness of the human brain, mimicry. These wiser people discovered they could hold POWER over others by creating fear 'systems', fear concepts, where no direct causal agent is present. In the end, it does take a wise person to exercise such control over others.
I don't think there is much in our society that is 'populist' in origin, most grand ideas, inventions, philosophies, etc all have very punctual and 'personal' origins, I see religion no differently.
I, as you, as a youth, occasionally rationalised religion through the awesomness of 'nature' as you mention... but I've come to realise that it does not fit the general pattern of human inventiveness.
To me fear should be non-existent outside of immediate risk to life. All other forms of fear are social disfunctions due to human overpopulation and the stress of constant close proximity.
I prefer to envision human society as an ape society, rather than an ant/termite/bee society, as many overpopulation-denialists would like to compare us to. We are not insects, we are apes. And the incredibly high densities we chose to live in are not conducive to healthy non fear. Our instincts and evolution do not take into account big city life and fast cars and nasty bosses, so our biology does what it can to cope... and fear/anxiety is a common result.
I am presently reading (ever so slowly) a book called RISK, which is along those lines as well.
As you say, fear is an extremely interesting topic :)