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Sunday, Sep. 4, 2011

CLOSE-UP: Alfons Deeken

Priest-philosopher makes death his life's work

Staff writer

On Friday, July 22, as the stifling heat and humidity of summer relented for just a fleeting few days, hundreds of people filled a hall at Enkakuji Temple in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, to listen to a lecture by philosophy scholar Alfons Deeken.

News photo
Deeken in the Alps, during his time as a student in Munich.

German-born Deeken, a professor emeritus at Sophia University in Tokyo, and long a leading promoter of death education in Japan, told the audience in lively, fluent Japanese that the more you think about your own death, the more you realize how precious your life is — and so the more you will live your life to the full.

"I have been a member of various health ministry committees," the 79-year-old professor said rather solemnly. "And according to the ministry's statistics, the mortality rate of Japanese people is 100 percent." It was his way of stressing that everyone has to face death.

Deeken, who is honorary chairman of Sei to Shi wo Kangaeru Kai (the Japanese Association of Death Education and Grief Counseling), which he founded 1983, then went on to emphasize that learning about death and dying is not a depressing pursuit, but one that leads to a fuller appreciation of life.

During his childhood in wartime Germany, Deeken often encountered death in his family and among his friends, including those who were victims of Allied bombing. However, such experiences — as he explains in one of his books, titled "Yoku Iki Yoku Warai Yoki Shi to Deau" ("Good Living, Good Humor, Good Death") — led him to choose thanatology (the study of death) as his life's work.

Born in 1932 as the third child of a pious Catholic father who was a real estate agent and farmer in Emstek in the northern German state of Lower Saxony, young Deeken helped his anti-Nazi father in various ways, including typing for secret distribution many copies of a speech by a bishop criticizing the regime.

After war's end in 1945, the then teenage Deeken threw himself into the world of books, and it was after he read a biography of St. Francis Xavier that he decided to become a Catholic priest. So, after graduating from high school, he entered the Society of Jesus (the Roman Catholic, all-male, evangelizing Jesuits) in Germany before studying German literature in Austria and then gaining a master's degree in philosophy from a university in Munich.

In 1959, Deeken came to Japan to study Japanese and theology, and he was ordained as a priest in 1965. Then, from 1967 to 1973, he studied for his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in New York City, an institution "in the Jesuit tradition."

Following the award of his doctorate, in 1973 Deeken started teaching philosophy at Sophia University, including a course titled Shi no Tetsugaku (Philosophy of Death) in 1977. Besides all this and the association he founded in 1983, Deeken has actively promoted death education among the general public and has had about 30 books published in Japanese about death, dying, bereavement and grief — some of which were translated into Korean and Chinese.

Deeken has received many awards for his promotion of death education, including the highly prestigious Kikuchi Kan cultural award in 1991 and the Cross of the Order of Merit of the German Federal Republic in 1998.

Now, although he retired from the university in 2003, Deeken is still busy lecturing on life and death all around Japan. He did, however, find time to meet with The Japan Times at Sophia University on July 19.

Let me ask you about your background. What made you start thinking deeply about death?

I began thinking about death at an early age. When I was 8, I experienced the death of my young sister from leukemia. In grade school, I experienced many deaths during the Allied bombings in northern Germany in World War II. Some of my classmates were burned to death before my eyes in incendiary attacks. On the last day of WWII, my grandfather, who had risked his life in the anti-Nazi movement, was standing in front of our house, waving a white flag welcoming the Allied troops. He was shot in front of my eyes by the first arriving Allied soldier.

Through all those experiences, I began to think deeply about death, and make a distinction between an unavoidable death, as in the case of my younger sister, and avoidable deaths brought about by the warmongering of Germany's irresponsible Nazi government.

In retrospect, an important inspiration for choosing the philosophy of death and death education as my academic life's work came from my sister Paula, who died at home at age 4. She had been told by her doctor and by our parents that there was no cure for her leukemia and that she would have to face death soon. At that time there was no cure for leukemia. In our family there were eight brothers and sisters, so we took turns sitting at the bedside of our dying sister. She amazed all of us with the way she faced her approaching death.


As children of pious Catholic parents we had, of course, been told that for Christians death is not the end of everything but the gate to heaven. Our sister surprised us on her last day when she shook hands with everybody and simply said "I shall see you again in heaven." That enormous spiritual energy of hope was the testament of our dying sister to her parents and her seven brothers and sisters.

News photo
Deeken stands second from the right behind his father in this family photo.

As a student of philosophy in Munich, I spent some time working as a hospital volunteer. Once a doctor asked me to be with a dying patient who would probably have three hours to live. He was a refugee from a country in eastern Europe who had no relatives in Germany.

When I went to his bedside he was still conscious. I asked myself what a dying patient might want to talk about. The usual conversation on topics like politics, sports or weather would certainly not be of interest to a dying person.

However, I felt that the dying man had given me, as a final gift, the chance to make an important decision about my life's work. Since there was not much to talk about, we both decided to spend the last half-hour in prayer. The patient died asking God to receive him into heaven.

The man died peacefully about three hours later, but they seemed like the three longest hours of my life. I was challenged to think deeply about life and death and, during that time, I made an important decision — namely, to make studying the philosophy of death my life's work.

What brought you to Japan in 1959?

When I was growing up in Germany, each year every grade school could recommend one pupil for the Nazi elite schools that were training the future leaders of the Third Reich. When my school's principal informed me that I had been selected, I simply answered: "I am not going."

The inspiration for my response had come from a young Japanese of my own age. Among the 26 Nagasaki martyrs in 1597 about whom I had read, there was a young boy named Ibaragi Ludovico. On his way to his crucifiction, he was told by a samurai: "You are being punished for being a Christian. If you give up your Christian faith, I will adopt you and you do not have to die." The account I read said that Ibaragi answered: "It would be better if you also became a Christian and joined me on the way to heaven."

That young Japanese inspired me to follow my own conscience rather than accept the recommendation of my principal. At that time I felt a great desire to visit the country that had produced such a courageous boy.

When you came to Japan, were you a student of the language?

Yes. And then I studied in the theology department of Sophia University for four years. I became a priest here in Japan. So I am a priest made in Japan!

After becoming a priest, you went to New York to study philosophy. Was that especially philosophy related to death?

Yes. I studied at Fordham University for my Ph.D. in philosophy, and I also attended the annual congresses of associations concerned with death education and visited many hospices. Then in 1973, I came back to Japan and started to teach at Sophia.

You founded the Japanese Association for Death Education and Grief Counseling in 1983. What led to that move?

In November 1982 at Sophia, I organized a seminar on death and dying for 800 participants. Many of those who attended urged me to continue the seminar on a regular basis, and that led to my founding the association.


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