has appeared to be a thing of mystery to human beings.
Throughout history and the span of cultures, many attempts at
understanding it have been made, and many religions have formulated detailed
accounts of its after-effects.
Though death itself is universal and indiscriminate, the human and
cultural approaches to it can vary greatly.
And yet, almost all human societies have beliefs in souls or spirits and
an afterlife, and all conduct rituals when people die. In every known human
society, the disposal of the dead has been given special significance, a
practice whose original purposes were not necessarily hygienic considerations,
but ideas entertained by primitive peoples concerning human nature and destiny.
This conclusion is supported by the fact that the disposal of the dead – even
from the earliest times in human and cultural development – has been proven to
have been of a ritual kind.
This custom, which is of equal significance in many cultures, has been
argued to have stemmed from an instinctive inability, or refusal, on the part of
man, to accept death as the definitive end of human life.
The belief that we survive death in some form occurs often, in various
religions, past and present, and noticeably affects any evaluations of man and
his place in the universe. Mortuary rituals and funerary customs reflect any
beliefs held about death and the post-mortuary passage of the human soul; they
represent also the practical measures taken to assist the dead in achieving
their destiny, and sometimes to save the living from the dreaded molestation of
those whom death had transformed into a different state of being.
More than the particulars of
funerary habits and rituals, I will be investigating the professed purpose or
necessity of those rituals, ideas related to death and dying, and the attitudes
held by two differing societies with regards to death.
Though it is human nature to fear the unknown, views are likely to differ
at least slightly across cultural and societal divides.
Though much is often said of biological evolution or linguistic
evolution, cultural evolution is believed by many anthropologists to be equally
prominent, and has led to discernible differences between societies that have
developed while geographically separated. It
may be that the rate of economic development in a society affects the people’s
outlook on the aforementioned unknown. Thus,
I aim to compare two contrasting cultures of wholly differing backgrounds and
The cultures that I will be
looking at are the Hindu religion in the town of Kashi in India, and the
agnostics in London, England. Though
people still classify themselves in terms of religious beliefs, the strength of
these beliefs can be seen to be deteriorating.
I am considering all agnostics as part of the same group, regardless of
religious history or cultural upbringing. In
a city such as London, in which residents are exposed to a diversity of
backgrounds, people may gradually hold less rigidly to the decrees of religious
literature and doctrines. Advancements
in scientific discoveries and information now available to the common man have
led to more mechanistic and object-orientated ways of thinking.
This approach to the world enables the furthering of the
technology-economy system that Western society has developed, and decreases the
ability to unquestioningly accept the existence of a god.
The Hindu people, in turn,
remain more true to the religion’s edicts.
The village of Kashi (also known as Banaras or Varanasi) is considered
the holy town, and it is believed that a pilgrimage to the area, in order to die
there, will bring a greater level of being in the afterlife. Thus, religious beliefs in the town are strong, and funerary
rituals strictly adhered to, with the deliberate goal of achieving liberation
The principal differences
between Hindu funeral practices and agnostic ones is largely affected not just
by their separate beliefs, but by the strength of their beliefs in religion.
The intended purposes behind closely-followed Hindu funeral rites have a
deep-seated meaning and are geared toward the bringing of fortune upon the
deceased, while agnostic funerals are without such a goal.
Rituals in London are kept in operation mainly for the sake of social
tradition – a conservatism that modernisation has not affected – or to
fulfil psychological and social needs of those still living.
Though funerals still fill these purposes, the religious beliefs and
ideas inspiring the creation of these rituals have essentially gone. Attitudes toward, and ideas of, death, differ in the same
way. While the media has affected
the way in which Westerners see and treat the notion, or reality, of death,
Hindus hold more strongly onto age-old beliefs, and are more untouched by modern
scepticism and the uncompromising decrees of science. Though a denial and fear in the face of the apparent
hopelessness of mortality exist in the West, the Hindu religion allows the
possibility of hope by pronouncing death not the conclusion to human existence,
merely a stepping-stone in an ongoing process.
The concept of rites of
passage was introduced by anthropologist Van Gennep in 1908. Although the model was initially developed to address a
particular ceremonial pattern observed in “primitive” societies, it can also
be applicable to complex industrialised societies. The structural form of a rite of passage consists of the
shift of a person from one particular state to another, one that involves a
change in the knowledge, perceptions and experience of the individual, in the
case of a rite of passage such as initiation into a particular group within a
society, but also involves changes to a person’s societal identity, as is the
case with funerals. According to
Bloch and Parry’s interpretations (see
bibliography), there is a recurrent symbolism of rebirth in death rites.
Thus, greater importance is given to a person’s social existence, than
to a biological one – society achieves a certain power over the acquisition
and control over life, and this is manifested in the practice of rituals.
An analysis of the psychological effects of a death in a society was made
by Freud, who theorised that the irrepressible memory of the deceased led to a
belief in a continued existence beyond death, in some form.
The effect of modernisation
and scientific cynicism in Britain, and particularly in its city culture, has
led to an analytical perspective to posthumous passage, keeping rituals in
existence largely for the sake of tradition.
Their purpose has come to be more in aid of the psychological healing of
those still living; in our age of obsessive psycho-analysis, grief is seen as an
important and necessary process. It
may be believed that funerals are essential for the purpose of giving friends
and relatives of the deceased some sense of closure, an opportunity to come to
terms with the incident and prepare to move on. On the other hand, there is a sense of obligatory affinity
about death, requiring a front of communal caring, while at funerals this can
only increase an element of insincerity.
However, for the Hindu,
rituals serve a greater purpose and aim to bring future good to the dead
themselves. The complex specifics
of what is known as a “good death” are geared toward bringing the person a
good next birth, or even moksha –
salvation, or liberation, from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Though a constant regeneration of life may not appear from the outset as
such a bad thing, the belief is that only after eight million four hundred
thousand births will a person be born as a human again, and even human lives are
abundant with misery and pain. An
escape from this forlorn eternity is appealing.
The good death is seen as a conscious decision on the part of the dying,
who control not only the conditions in, but the moment at which they die.
A prime example of this is the well-known case of the satÌ-strÌ – a wife driven to
self-sacrifice upon her husband’s funeral pyre, an act which may be judged by
functionalists as strengthening the significance of familial ties in the
society. The control of the wife
over her decease appears to be the defining feature of a good death – a bad
death is characterised by the deceased not having had a chance to prepare
himself. Dying is seen as a process
rather than an event. Hence,
untimely deaths – deaths by sudden accidents or as the result of violence –
are considered bad deaths, and the term commonly used to refer to bad deaths, akál
fact literally translates as “untimely death”.
The idea of a good death differs somewhat in the West.
People fear the image of the slow, undignified, old-age death, feeling
sickly and gradually fading away until the body ceases to function altogether;
instead, the sudden painless death is probably favoured, allowing one to enjoy
life until its last moment.
On the other hand, the idea of finding death before old age is a fear too
great for consideration.
The term “untimely death” is interesting in its reference to the
“time” not being right, although both cultures’ views of what the right
time would be differ considerably.
A culture’s perception of
time and its way of passing have a distinct bearing on people’s attitudes
toward death. Time and Nature
become closely linked in human thoughts, and death can be seen either as the end
of a life, or as part of the natural cycle – a recurring incident that does
not put an end to a single biological process, but furthers the progress of a
larger one. The difference between
a metaphorical circle and a straight line is merely a matter of perspective.
the West, time is seen as linear, with life being a step-by-step process and
death its brutal conclusion. As time passes, irreversible events advance,
and the world changes, moving steadily in its non-recurrent path.
Individual human lives progress in much the same way. However, in many
religions, time is circular, and reincarnation – the process of life,
death, and rebirth – is a constant never-ending cycle. In the Hindu
religion, as well as the rebirth of the dead into a better life than the
preceding, the pursuit of the “good” death intends to regenerate the cosmos
and time itself. The body is often closely equated to the cosmos, a
likening which is evident in many aspects of their funeral rites. In the
same way, though on a slightly smaller scale, the cyclical nature of death and
regeneration is apparent in the symbolism of embryology through various
practices and beliefs related to funerary processes. An example of this is
the likening of the laying of the body on the funeral pyre or on its way toward
it, to the position of a baby during its birth.
The Hindu ritual of cremation
portrays a parallelism of the body and the cosmos; the burning of the body, and
immersion of the ashes into water, as a necessary step toward re-creation, is
symbolic of the perceived annihilation and rejuvenation of the world through
fire and flood. From another angle,
cremation of the dead body may be seen as a sacrifice, mirroring the believed
creation of the universe through the dismemberment of the god Prajapati’s own
body – a repetition of this act of creation is representative of a renewal of
time. Many parallels may be drawn
between the specifics of cremation and the rituals surrounding fire-sacrifice,
such as the usage of ritually pure wood, the purification of the site and its
consecration with holy water. This
view is strengthened upon memory of the fact that a person is not considered
dead until the skull has been broken and the “vital breath” has been freed,
meaning that cremation occurs at a moment before
the person is dead, and is indeed the cause of death. It has been said that the ensuing purifications of the chief
mourner – the man who handles the technicalities of the cremation, and who,
technically, would be the perpetrator of homicide – bear a resemblance to the
expiation of criminals.
The belief is widely held that moksha
can only be attained if the death takes place in a particular holy city.
According to Masterji, a resident of Kashi (quoted by Christopher Justice
in Dying the Good Death), “those who
die in Kashi go to heaven, but for those who die outside there is no moksha.”
For the very devout religious followers, though, there are a great many
more particulars that must be adhered to in order to die a good death.
Aside from being voluntarily submitted to by those on the verge of death,
the incident would ideally occur on purified ground, and out of doors.
Ideally, one would die during one of the particular designated holy
periods in the Hindu calendar. Also,
the names of god should be chanted continuously as death approaches, and part of
the popularity of the Muktibhavan –
literally a “mansion of liberation”, a place to which people go to die –
is due to the name of god being chanted twenty-four hours a day by priests.
The British funeral procession
is a great part of public funerals, mirroring the idea of death as a
leave-taking. This notion is taken
further by the Hindu, who have complex myths relating to the journey of the
spirit after leaving the body. The Garuda
Purana – the eschatological scripture, read publicly after death –
describes the long journey of the soul, after having left the body, toward the
realm of death, involving various tortures and punishments, and the necessary
crossing of the Vaitarni River.
A significant feature distinguishing the funerals of the Hindu –
and indeed a vast majority of other religions and cultures – from those of the
West is the role and purpose of ritual particulars as preparation for the
deceased’s impending journey. For
instance, during the first ten days after the cremation, a reconstruction of the
body is formed, by each day offering a ball of rice flour (pinda)
for the sake of the deceased, each ball representing a limb.
After the “body” is completed and life breathed into it, one of the
balls of rice is cut into three and united with three other rice balls used to
represent the deceased’s ancestors, a ritual which aims to help the dead on
their way into the journey to the realm of the dead.
Until this point, the deceased was merely a disembodied ghost wandering
In the relatively cynical
environment of agnosticism, the view of death is believed to be one of unusually
brutal honesty, while the symbolism-abundant rituals of other societies are
considered to merely delude people. It
is taught that death is meaningless, outrage exists at the apparent knowledge
that life itself is futile, and that people’s bodies will ultimately break
down regardless of the hard work that is put into maintaining them.
Dying young is seen as a bad death not because salvation will not be
attained, but because the rightful amount of life time has not been used yet.
This impression of the body as a machine and as life as a possession is
exemplified as a product of a society driven by industrialisation and
Funerals have been conducted as theatre – they have directors, and a behind-the-scenes section that the audience does not see, and requires those speaking lines of emotion and grief to perform as actors. At cremations, unlike those of the Hindu religion, the industrial background of the process is kept fully hidden from visitors, who prefer to be shown a front of peacefulness and flowers. Even the business of death has become a growing industry. Death and the dying process are becoming increasingly institutionalised, with grieving families paying strangers to transport, sanitise, reconstruct, clothe and dispose of their loved ones. Funerals, as graveyards and memorials to the dead, have become increasingly less elaborate over the years. People now attempt to deal with them as quickly as possible, and to allow them to intrude upon daily life as little as possible, in an attempt to shut out an awareness of mortality. The practice of cremation enables a banishing of the traditional grave entirely.
In many societies, there is a disjuncture between biological death and social death, as a result of that between the physical body and social persona. The belief in ghosts or similar entities may be considered an occasion of biological death having preceded social death. From a more scientific point of view, simply being remembered or thought of is an instance in which the dead still occupy a societal role. In the opposite instance, the situation of dying in a hospital, probably immobilised or being kept alive by machines, can result in being treated as dead and thus considered socially dead before being physiologically so. Similarly, the terminally ill are allowed to claim their life insurance in order to benefit before their death.
In the Hindu religion, the
exact moment of death is defined as that at which the soul – or “vital
breath”, known as prªn – leaves the body, through
the top of the skull. This occurs
during the cremation ritual, as the chief mourner cracks open the skull of the
burned body with a stave. Until
this moment, it is believed, the person is not technically dead.
Hence, cremation occurs while the body is still animate.
For many days following the cremation, too, the person is said to be a
disembodied ghost, a form potentially dangerous both to itself and its living
relatives. Only when all rituals
have been completed is the person considered to be on their way into the next
phase of existence.
There is an inherent attitude of denial in Western attitudes toward
death. To quote Margaret Mead, in
reference to the Western view, “When a person is born, we rejoice, and when
they’re married, we jubilate, but when they die, we try to pretend that
nothing happened.” On the other
hand, there is an almost defined set of expected behaviour at Western funerals,
that requires one to show grief and to cry, to “let the feelings out”. If close family members do not do this, they are said to be
in denial. To say that this is the
sole cause of emotional mourning, however, would be an over-simplification –
psychological consequences for those close to the deceased are naturally an
important factor, and perhaps the original cause for existing traditional
This denial is not a possibility for the Hindu, for it would result in a
lack of preparation for death, leading to a “bad” death. On the contrary, a Hindu person would prefer to have control
over their death to the extent that they can deliberately relinquish life, once
all affairs have been taken care of and their sons gathered around them.
Much regard is held for people who can predict the moment at which they
will die, and being given time to make the pilgrimage to India’s holy city of
Kashi, in order to die there, brings further good.
Yet, more than behaviour as the time of death approaches, if moksha
is to be attained, a person must be aware throughout their lives of following a
morally virtuous path. From an
early age, children are told of moksha
as a goal to strive toward. This
doctrine can be seen from a functionalist point of view to serve a purpose in
the society, in its creation of a moral code by which people can conduct their
lives, and the assurance that this code will be adhered to.
The idea of “ceasing to exist” is a somewhat ambiguous concept. It is possible to say that a person can never cease to exist entirely, for some part of them will always live on in some way, be it in the earth’s nitrogen cycle or in the memories of people. It is also believed that a much more significant part of a person continues to survive, as a spirit roaming the globe, inhabiting another body, or spending eternity in a much better – or alternatively, much worse – form of life in another kind of world. The agnostic Londoners hold to the scientific belief that nothing more than atoms or memories and ideas can outlive the physical body. As a result of this, no preparation is actually required for the burial, or other funerary procedure, at least not for the sake of the dead.
The Hindu belief is that the body is made of five matters: fire, air,
water, soil, and sky. The result of
the cremation of the dead body is that these five elements return to their
natural origins. The spirit,
meanwhile, leaves the body to embark upon its journey to the realm of death,
which includes crossing the mythical Vaitarni River, which runs with bodily
fluids such as blood, pus and urine, and is inhabited by vicious serpents and
fish with sharp needle-like snouts. This
river is seen as a metaphor for the body, in that falling into it represents
falling into the womb, and thus, rebirth, whereas successfully crossing it
results in achieving moksha.
Though modern ways of thinking
have eradicated much of the supernatural beliefs surrounding death, they cannot
take away the mystery of it, or its emotional impact on those who are faced with
it. On the contrary, the fear and
incomprehension of death are likely to have been made more acute due to
today’s improved standards of living and increased life expectancy.
Largely out of conservatism, rituals are still held to by agnostics,
though their origins and original purposes have long been left behind.
Death is now treated as an unpleasant occurrence, and it is often said
that the Western attitude toward death is one of denial.
In contrast, the Hindu funeral rituals are many and specific, and,
because of the desire for a better life than the last or the attainment of moksha,
Hindus take death preparations seriously and ensure that rituals are closely
followed. This is particularly
noticeable in the close-knit community of a small town, as opposed to the
technology-driven society of a European capital city.
More than the consequence of rituals, the beliefs behind existence and
time influence differences in Western and Hindu attitudes toward death.
The Hindu belief in the body being an extension of the cosmos and life
being eternally regenerating results in a significantly diminished fear of
death, and gives people an aim and reason to adhere to rituals.
London’s agnostics, however, with a decreasing presence and effect of
religious beliefs, have only this life to be aware of and cling to.
on the Grave: Encounters With Death
London, Great Britain: Abacus,
Bloch, Maurice and Jonathan Parry
and the Regeneration of Life
Cambridge, Great Britain:
Cambridge University Press, 1982
Society and Religion
Middlesex, England: Pelican
Books Ltd, 1985 (Thoughts for the Times on
War and Death, originally dated 1915)
the Good Death
Delhi, India: Sri Satguru
Metcalf, Peter and Richard Huntington
of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual (Second Edition)
Cambridge, Great Britain:
Cambridge University Press, 1991