It’s generally claimed that awareness of our mortality is what sets humans apart from other animals. I’m wholly convinced elephants have some pretty good ideas about death, and I’ve no reason to think any species of mammal entirely oblivious. I find it harder to make any kind of guess about what creatures other than mammals are thinking, there’s so much less to go on.
Thinking about people though, most of us, most of the time clearly do not live with a consciousness of our own mortality. As the saying goes, no one lies on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office. Come the end of your innings, all the material wealth is of little account. I do not believe the culture I live in is particularly aware of death. We see it as something to delay and avoid (although we won’t drive slower to avoid it for ourselves or others). I think mostly we assume death is for later, or for someone else, and we act accordingly.
I gather (New Scientist article last year) people who are conscious of their mortality tend to move away from rampant materialism and towards a more spiritual way of life. Thinking about death, properly, will make you more willing to enjoy each precious moment you have, not squandering it on worthless things. Death makes you care for your loved ones more. The death consciousness can bring life into focus, making us work out what matters and what does not.
Looking at the consumerist culture I live in, where politicians preach long work hours and adverts sell materialism at every turn, I do not see an intrinsic awareness of our own mortality. Quite the opposite. I see a lot of distractions designed to help us forget that we were all born to die. We’d be so much better off if we gave a bit of thought to how we might feel in that death bed scenario. What might we regret? What will we look back on joyfully? That’s one of the best guides to living you could find. If anything, the animal kingdom is more death conscious than we are. They don’t go around repeating actions that are likely to kill them, whilst convincing themselves that it will be fine. (Binge drinking, drug taking, driving too fast, too tired, to drunk, never getting any exercise, courting heart attacks and diabetes etc).
If you feel the overwhelming need to raise your awareness of death, or someone else’s, I’d like to try and sell you a thing. (Yes, I know what I said before about materialism, and that there may be some irony here, but we all need to eat and I promise, this is a good thing!) It’s the tale of a girl who murders her family for money. This does not go well for her. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1412864360/clemency-slaughter-and-the-legacy-of-death
Clemency Slaughter and the Legacy of D’Eath: A Grim Gothic Tale without a Happy Ending, written by Steampunk author Jonathan Green and illustrated by gothic artist Tom Brown. (Tom being my other half). Having read it and seen the art in progress, I can vouch for this being both lovely, and full of dead people.