Death:  The End or Just the Beginning

 

April 16, 1992

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

            What happens when we die?  Do we just die and fade away the way a drop of water evaporates and eventually disappears? Are we forgotten and unheard of forever more? Does death affect only the deceased? And where do we go after we die? Death is the mysterious fate that we will all someday meet. It is feared by some and contemplated by most.

            Death is such a “popular” topic because it is one of the certain things in life. As the ever—popular saying goes: “There are two things in a life of an American that are certain: one is death and the other is taxes.” Although humorous, this phrase is quite true.

            The effects of death are also far—reaching. Death affects many people beyond the deceased, including family, friends, peers, government, future generations, and pets and so on. Everyone is affected by death at one time or another.

            And sometimes individuals live their lives around death. For example, people in some religions live their lives specifically as preparations for death and the afterlife. In some cases, death is just as important or even more important than life itself. Buddha, for example, waited for the exact moment to die. Not everyone is preoccupied by death, but we are all aware that it lies ahead, for better or for worse.

           People have many different views on dying, and these can be affected by an individual’s religion, age, era, generation, place of residence, field of work or all of the above. And people have many different images of death, whether it is clouds, fire, a god, or reincarnation. Whatever it may be, an individual’s notion of death is very important to him.

            This paper will present various views of death from different kinds of people during different eras, the underlying theme being that death does not simply propel the deceased into nothingness with a total disappearance of mind, body and soul. Rather, among the living, the soul of the deceased lives on through memories and ancestor worship. And as for the deceased, although the peoples of the world hold many different convictions, virtually all have one belief in common: the soul does not die but certainly lives on in one form or another.

 

 

VIEWS OF THE PAST

Kramer, Scott & Wu, Kuang-Ming (1988).

Thinking Through Death Vol. 1

Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company

BD 444 .T555 1988 v.1

Valued possessions were often buried with the deceased of the earliest Greek people. This was discovered through the findings of recent archeological research. Objects made of pottery were often located near the door, both on the inside and outside of the tombs, which seems to indicate that the Greeks shared a final toast to the dead. Other goods and possessions such as jars containing wine, oil, and grain, were buried with the dead because they were thought to be needed for the journey into the afterlife. Inhumation and cremation were also ways to send the dead on their journey.

Greek art, literature, and archeological remains suggest that the conception of death was never very far from their thoughts. And the Greeks generally held the belief that death was not the end of life. People such as Pythagoras, Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle introduced philosophies that would provide the foundation for all subsequent Western thinking of death. And through the Orphic myths, like the stories of Opheus and Odysseus, the Greeks illustrated their belief that the soul survives the body. These myths embodied the Greeks’ ideas about the soul, the afterlife, and the rewards and punishments in another life and world.

 

Bardis, Panos D. (1981).

History of Thanatology

New York: University Press of America, Inc

BD 444 .B33 1981

            The Egyptians defined human nature as a psychophysical organism or a well—integrated existence, all of whose parts, including the body, are essential. Because of this, the body was preserved for future reanimation through the ritual of mummification. The mummy’s mouth is kept open to facilitate life though nourishment. This ritual was an imitation of the death and resurrection of Osiris, the Egyptian death god. At the end of the passage and ritual of wrapping the mummy, the priest often recited a passage from the sacred texts; for example: “You will live again, you will live again forever! Behold, you are young again forever!” (p.20).

            One of the Egyptians’ beliefs was that life after death continues almost unaltered. The Egyptians’ depiction of the dead was one of dependency. They believed that the dead were dependent upon the living for food and drink replenishment within the tomb, and if the dead were not cared for in such a way, the second death of the tomb was hideous, dreadful, and final.

            Stoic Seneca, one of Rome’s thinkers, taught that humans must not fear death. Instead, the best way to deal with death is to constantly think about it and to stress the fact that we are part of nature and must accept our destiny.

 

VIEWS OF THE PRESENT

Roslansky, John D. (1973).

The End of Life

Amsterdam, London: North-Holland Publishing Company

BD 444 .N5 1972

Dr. Nathan Scott, Jr. believes there is no other great theme of human existence before which the people of our age are as incompetent as they are in the presence of death. He also believes man has always been reduced to a strange kind of stuttering and stammering in the face of his last enemy. And now more than ever before, man is seeking to avoid very desperately the confrontation with the fact of his mortality. Scott shuns the old, and says that our odd funeral customs are all calculated to persuade us that the dead are not really dead after all.

Scott also describes the literature of the twentieth century as literature obsessed with time: time lost and recaptured, with time as duration and time as disintegration. He explains that most poems, plays and novels of our period incorporate various metaphors on the nature of time, which includes the time of death.

Scott attributes this time obsession to our fascination with technology in the Western world. For example, telecommunications can instantly inform us about the most recent events happening around the world. Life now is much more upbeat than in the past, and people have less leisure time. However, we also have a lot more to think about, including our visions of the future and our eventual deaths.

 

Scott, Nathan A. Jr. (1967).

The Modern Vision of Death

Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press

BD 444.

            Paul Tillich says it is hard for us to imagine our “being- no—more.” (p.101). He also poses such questions as: How do people react with death as an image of the future with its hope and threat and inescapable end? He says most of us react by looking at the immediate future, anticipating it, working for it, being anxious about it, while cutting off from our awareness the last moment in the future.

            Tillich states that most people speak of time in three ways or modes, the past, present and the future, and nobody has ever penetrated the mystery of these three modes. He explains that we become aware of them when we hear a voice telling us, “You also will come to an end.” The future is the one thing that awakens us to the mystery of time and it starts with the anxious anticipation of the end.

            Another point Tillich makes is that the image of the future produces contrasting feelings in a man. On one hand, the expectation of the future gives one a feeling of joy with one actualizing one’s possibilities, and being able to create something new. On the other hand, one has the anxiety of speculating on what is hidden in the future, with every year of one’s life getting shorter and shorter until it hits the unavoidable end.

Tillich also believes that people should think not only about the after of “being—no—more,” but also the idea of “being—not— yet.” (p.101). He says we don’t usually care about our not yet being, about the indefinite time before our birth in which we were not. And we ask about life after death, but seldom do we ask about our being before birth. He goes on to say that the view of “being no—more” cannot be considered unless the “being—not—yet” is also contemplated. (p.101).

 

VIEWS OF YOUTH

Mills, Gretchen C., Reisler, Raymond Jr.,

Robinson, Alice E., & Vermilye Gretchen (1976).

Discussing Death a Guide to Death Education

Palm Springs, California: ETC Publication

BD 444 .D57 1976

            All children; even those under the age of six, are interested in knowing more about the subject of death, but usually they are sheltered from such exposures to death. An example is that within the last four decades, it has become increasingly common for the sick and elderly to be taken to health care institutions where children are prohibited; thus the exposure to death is effectively removed from the young. Since death is hidden from children, they are unable to begin to understand the process of dying.

            By the age of ten, children are able to fantasize an alternative to death, a hereafter, as a normal part of their intellectual and emotional growth. In this way, schoolagers assure themselves that their newly-developed individuality will continue to exist.

            At about the age of thirteen through eighteen, adolescents are able to look further into the concept of life after death and the idea of what it is like to dead. For adolescents to think about what comes after death is very important. Contemplation about the topic of death is needed in order for a child to become more familiar with the topic of death.

 

Wesenstam, C. G. & Wass, H. (1987).

Swedish and U.S. children’s thinking about death:

A qualitative study and cross—cultural comparison.

In Death-studies: March-April Vol. 11 (2) (p.99—121).

            A 1984 study that expanded C. G. Wesenstam’s research examined differences in the understanding of death in children aged 10 to 12 from Sweden and the United States. The children’s task was to draw a picture of what came into their minds when they heard the word “death.” Then they were to explain the ideas in their pictures.

            The results showed there were different categories of depictions of death that concerned cultural and religious practices and symbols, causes, Christian aspects of the afterlife, emotions, and nature of death. These differences were identified in both the Swedish and American children in the study.

 

 

VIEWS OF THE ORIENT

Bardis, Panos D. (1981).

History of Thanatology

New York: University Press of America, Inc.

BD 444 .B33 1981

            The Chinese believe that an early death is an anomaly that prevents full personal development. The death of a young person produces an evil spirit that threatens the entire community. This explains why longevity is so highly valued in Chinese society.

            Likewise, the Chinese rejoice when the deceased is over seventy years of age. It is further believed that the deceased becomes a sacred ancestor to the family members. The Chinese also had some notion of a heaven and hell.

            In India, many people follow Buddhism and Hinduism. These religions offer a variety of concepts concerning death. For example, dualism states that a person consists of a physical body as well as an immortal inner soul or self. Nirvana is the enlightenment that is achieved when the person has annihilated all desire to live in the material world.

            Reincarnation is the concept that the soul is reborn into another human or animal after the death of the body. The Hindu mythology pursued rejuvenation in four ways: 1) Intervention by a saint, 2) Exchanging life with another human, 3) Residing in a sacred place, and 4) Listening to the holy writings (p.13). Through the ways of Buddhism and the Hinduism, one can often enter a life after death.

 

Kramer, Scott & Wu, Kuang-Ming (1988).

Thinking Through Death, Vol. 1

Malabar Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company

 BD 444 .T555 1988 v.1

            Oriental sages often try to convince people that death is something positive by citing three ideas. The first is that “death is a part of life.” (p.53). In China, dead ancestors are profoundly alive, always blessing their living posterity with good life and receiving honors and gifts from them. Ancestor worship is very important to the Confucians, who believe that dead ancestors interact with the living, giving us continual protection and blessings in return for offerings and upkeep of their graves. The Taoists see death as life’s complement, with death starting a new round of existence.

            The second idea is “death is taken to end life.” (p.53). The Japanese consider death to be what gives the finishing touches to life and determines life’s values. They make sure to live in such a way that life can end well.

            The third idea is “death is taken to continue life.” (p.53). In this view the deceased become one with the One, the ground of reality.

            In all of these views, death is not evil unless we make it evil. And death can often be seen as good, as dead ancestors help the lives of living relatives.

 

 

VIEWS OF THE WEST

Green, Betty R. & Irish, Donald P. (1971).

Death Education: Preparation for Living

Cambridge, Massachusetts: Schenkman Publishing Company

ED 444 .G7

            Western culture generally has a tendency to seek refuge in language by using such words as “exit,” “cease,” or “pass on” in place of “die.” (p.04). People in western cultures often de personalize death by treating the subject not as a tragedy but as a dramatic illusion, especially in popular entertainment.

            It is said that we cope with death by disguising it and pretending that it is not a basic condition of all life. Dying is often viewed as the death of a disease rather than a person. Death in western society has multiple meanings; it can be the “gentle night,” or the “great destroyer.” (p.06).

            Dying and death are psychological and social roles and not merely biological events, such as the social funeral ceremony or the emotional distress of the dying or close relatives and friends. In the United States, death is excessively camouflaged, which leads to a falsification of the seriousness of death.

            Feifel suggests that if we accept death as a necessity rather than strive to demote it to the level of accident, there may be less need to project fear of death outside ourselves. This may also mute some of the violence of our times. And we should not dread death but try to understand it.

 

Aries, Philippe (1974)

Western Attitudes toward Death:

From the Middle Ages to the Present

Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press

BD 444 .A67l3

            In western society, views of death would include funeral processions, mourning clothes, the spread of cemeteries and their surface area, visits to tombs, and the cult of memory. Aries writes that “death has become unnamable and everything henceforth goes on as if neither I nor those who dear to me are any longer mortal.” He says that we grudgingly admit we might die; we take out insurance on our lives to protect our families from poverty. At heart, we feel we are non-mortals yet we are surprised when the time comes.

            Within the family, even when members believe in the afterlife or a “transposition of life into eternity,” death becomes the unaccepted separation or the death of the other (p.106). Therefore, death gradually assumes another form, which is more distant, more dramatic and fuller of tension in the West.

 

THE BODY

Ferrater Mora, Jose (1965).

Being and Death

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

BD 444 .F483

            Mora begins by asking the question, “Man does not have a body, but is his body--his own body?” (p.147). Another way of expressing this is, “Man is a way of being a body.” (p.147). Thus, Mora seems to subscribe the body to naturalistic or materialistic reductionism. He contends that nothing can be detected in man that absolutely transcends his body, and that humans are not reducible to a material substance.

            Mora also says human beings are not a reality, or a cluster of realities, unified by a certain element or principle existing “beyond” or “beneath” it (p.147). Instead, man can be defined as tentively as “his” living, and if man is a set, he is a set whose only subset is himself (p.147).

            Mora goes on to say, living beings, or organisms, live. Nan, on the other hand, makes his own life (p.147). Organisms are capable of revealing, and concealing, attitudes, purposes, impulses, and emotions. And rather than having an “outside” and an “inside,” organisms are an “outside” and an “inside.” In a sense, Mora is saying the body is more than a material substance; there is also a spiritual presence that accompanies a person at death.

 

 

VIEWS OF ARTISTS

 

Goodman, Lisl Marburg (1981).

Death and the Creative Life

New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

BD 444 .G66

            Lisi Goodman conducted interviews of highly self-actualized people in the artistic and scientific professions. She was interested in the qualitative differences in their experiences of life and in their attitudes toward death. The interview topics included their work, lives, and thoughts and feelings about death, and the questions were direct and open—ended.

            In the interviews, many artists showed a reluctance to talk about death; many preferred discussing life. And many had little or no preoccupation with death.

The artists did define fame and recognition in terms of death. Many of the interviewees felt they had not led fulfilling lives as artists and felt they had to do a lot more before they died. This is why most of the artists were not ready for death. They often linked readiness to die with self—fulfillment and how far they had reached in their careers. On the other hand, the artists were likely to choose not to return at all after death and not to visit any pre-birth period.

 

 

VIEWS OF SCIENTISTS

Goodman, Lisl t4arburg (1981).

Death and the Creative Life

New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc

BD 444 .G66

            Scientists are overwhelmingly future—oriented and have greatly—expanded time perspectives, Scientists’ time orientation is a result of their work rather than a reflection of their personal attitudes toward death. They often have to think along the lines of predicting the future, and in order to predict the future, they must learn the past.

            A scientist would probably choose to return after a thousand years of visiting antiquity or the dawn of mankind if he had the capability to do so. The interview with scientists did show that they were more preoccupied with their own deaths on a conscious level.

            The difference between the artists’ and the scientists’ conscious preoccupation with death might be related to the fact that two different modes of experiencing the locus of death exist:  the internal and the external. We can experience death as friendly or a hostile force. Or, we can accept it within ourselves as an integral part of our being, something that has coexisted with our lives from the very beginning of mankind.

 

 

IMMORTALITY

Ferrater Mora, Jose (1965)

Being and Death

Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

BD 444 .F483

            Man’s longing for survival and immortality is not an insignificant whim that has all the appearance of an obsession. It is a reasonable attempt to understand life’s nature and meaning. Most humans hope to completely live out their lives and then be able to reach a final stage called “immortality” or “eternity.” (p.205)

            To survive is to attain a temporal prolongation of infinite human life. To be immortal is to have one’s soul or spirit continues to exist beyond the normal period of human life, or enter eternal life.

            There are two factors that contribute to the belief of immortality. First, the conception of immortality could be a reaction against the fear of dying. Second, immortality can serve as an attempt to explain and justify death, especially in relation to the notion that existence is not self—sufficient.

 

Kienow, D. 3. & Bolin, R. C. (1989—1990)

Belief in an afterlife: A national survey.

Omega Journal of Death and Dying Vol. 20 (1) (p.63-74).

            A 1978 survey of 1,532 people examined the belief in the afterlife, using death as a dependant variable. The results showed that significant factors affecting the belief in the afterlife included sex, race, age, marital status, religion, church attendance, and area of residence. Most significantly, the study showed that Protestants most often believed in the afterlife, followed by Catholics, and finally Jews. 

 

Perrett, Roy W. (1987).

Death and Immortality

Dordrecht, Boston, and Lancaster: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers

BD 444 .P469 1987

            According to the traditional Western view of immortality, we come into existence at a particular time (birth), live out our earthly lives, and then die. Death is followed by a deathless post—mortem existence. Thus we are born once, and die once. On the other hand, the Indians’ view of immortality is that we have all pre-existed beginninglessly, and that we have lived many times before and must live many times again in this world.

            There are two types of arguments that can be offered for the rebirth theory: philosophical arguments and empirical arguments. Philosophical arguments include metaphysical, ethical and theological arguments. Empirical arguments present a thesis as an explanatory hypothesis that satisfactorily accounts for various empirical phenomena. For example, from the Indian point of view, a person that exists has survived death once, and it is not unreasonable to survive death again and become reborn.

 

 

CONCLUSION

            Death is not merely a time in which one’s heart ceases to beat. From youths to adults, from past to present, the people of the world acknowledge that death is a very significant part of life.

            Although countless beliefs about death are and always have been in existence, the great majority of these convictions are in agreement that the soul of the deceased does live on. We certainly know that memories, reminiscing, and worship help keep the souls of the deceased alive. Admittedly, no one knows for certain what becomes of the souls themselves, but the world’s religions and cultures assure us that they continue on in some mysterious way that we have yet to discover.

 

 

REFERENCES

Aries, Philippe (1974). Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present.  Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bardis, Panos D. (1981). History of Thanatoloqy. New York:  University Press of America, Inc.

Ferrater Mora, Jose (1965). Being and Death. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Goodman, Lisl Marburg (1981). Death and the Creative Life.  New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

Green, Betty P. & Irish, Donald P. (1971). Death Education:  Preparation for Living. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Schenkman Publishing Company.

Klenow, D. J. & Bolin, R. C. (1989-1990). Belief in an afterlife: A national survey. Omega Journal of Death and Dying, Vol. 20 (1) (p.63—74).

Kramer, Scott & Wu, Kuang-Ming (1988). Thinking Through Death, Vol. 1. Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Mills, Gretchen C., Reisler, Raymond Jr., Robinson, Alice E., & Vermilye Gretchen (1976). Discussing Death: A Guide to Death Education. Palm Springs,            California: ETC Publication.

 

Perrett, Roy W. (1987). Death and Immortality. Dordrecht, Boston, and Lancaster: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Roslansky, John D. (1973). The End of Life. Amsterdam, London:  North-Holland Publishing Company.

Scott, Nathan A. Jr. (1967). The Modern Vision of Death. Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press.

Wesenstam, C. G. & Wass, H. (1987). Swedish and U.S. children’s thinking about death: A qualitative study and cross-cultural comparison. In Death—studies:             March-April Vol. 11 (2) (p.99— 121).

 

 

 

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