What Are Different Societies’ Attitudes Towards Death?
Although we might believe that our attitude towards death has been around for centuries, the truth is that societies’ attitudes have been ever changing. And not only throughout time, even nowadays different societies’ across the globe have different ideas about what happens when we die.
As an inevitable part of human life, death has always been a source of reflection for people. The question of what happens when we die has been answered in many different ways by societies, religions, traditions and philosophies. These answers have shaped people’s attitudes surrounding the rituals and behaviors related to death.
Death in Ancient Egypt
For ancient Egyptians, death was not the end, but the beginning of the next phase in an individual eternal journey. They believed that death was a temporary interruption, rather than the cessation of life. The dead were buried with their possessions in magnificent tombs and with elaborate rituals because the soul would live forever once it had passed through death’s doors.
They believed that, once they died, their soul would travel to the underworld, a place full of danger. Once the soul had successfully passed through the dangers of the underworld, it would reach the “Hall of Osiris”. Osiris, ruler of the dead and granter of life from the afterworld, judged whether the person’s earthly deeds were virtuous. He would then grant them permission to enter the eternal paradise, where everything which had been lost at death was returned and one would then truly live happily ever after.
The reputation Ancient Egypt acquired of being “death-obsessed” is actually undeserved. The culture was obsessed with living life to its fullest. Egyptians, for the most part, loved life and embraced it fully. They did not look forward to death or dying because they felt they were already living in the most perfect of worlds. The mortuary rituals were not intended to glorify death but to celebrate life and ensure it continued.
Tana Toraja in Indonesia
Tana Toraja is a highland region of Southern Sulawesi in Indonesia, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. Here is where the Torajan society, known for their elaborate death rituals, lives.
In Tana Toraja, they periodically hold a festival called Ma’nene, a ritual to pay homage to their ancestors. During this ritual, they remove the bodies of favoured ancestors from their coffins to clean and dress them. Sometimes they even walk them around the village, having the utmost respect for their dead.
For Torajans, death is a gradual and social process. It is not uncommon for bodies of people to remain in their families’ homes for years after they die, until the family has enough money to pay for a funeral. The longer the deceased person remains at home, the more the family can save for the funeral and the more expensive the ceremony can be. It is not until the funeral that a person is considered dead. Until then, they are referred to as to’makula, a sick person.
It may seem strange to the outside world but Torajans are completely at home among the dead. They believe the spirit of the dead lives among us, the living, looking out for us. Death is far less definitive here than in other cultures, more a crossing from one place to another than the bitter end.
Mexico and the Day of the Dead
The Day of the Dead is a Mexican week of festivities which begins on October 28 and ends with a national holiday on November 2. During this period, the popular belief is that the deceased have divine permission to visit friends and family on earth and enjoy once again the pleasures of life.
The Day of the Dead is a part of this culture’s embracement of death. During this time, Mexicans visit the graves of families and friends and adorn them with colourful flowers and offerings of food, toys, candles, and drinks among other things.The period is a joyful celebration of life, rather than a sober mourning of its passing.
The origins of this cultural proximity to death rests in the violent and tumultuous nature of Mexico’s past. From the brutality of the Spanish conquest to the bloodbath of the Mexican Revolution, Mexico’s direct confrontation with the mortality of life became ingrained in the national psyche.
As the artist Diego Rivera said in 1920: “If you look around my studio, you will see Deaths everywhere, Deaths of every size and colour.” Learning how to cope with mortality has always been a central preoccupation of human existence. The celebrations of the Day of the Dead provide an insight into how the Mexicans come to terms with mortality.
“Death renders all equal”, wrote Claudian. However, how each one of us relates to death is always changing. Societies’ across time and space have shaped their own rituals and behaviors related to death. As we mature, as we contemplate life and death, and as society changes, our attitude towards death evolves alongside our wishes and beliefs.
What might seem strange to us today can then later be normalised. Cremation is a great example. It was once considered a radical alternative to burial. However, nowadays it’s a common practice.
And what if there were more alternatives?
Let’s take Cryopreservation for example. It allows us to put the body into complete biological pause. Once cryopreserved, a body can stay in this state for however long is necessary for revival to be possible. The ultimate goal of cryopreservation is to preserve you so that future medical technology can bring you back in the future.
Will this be the next big thing in death for us as we head towards the 22nd century?