There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time. So you wait in this lobby until the third death.
In some parts of Tibet, corpses are left on a mountain rather than buried. For some, this may sound rather heartless. “But when you think how hard it is to carry a dead body up a mountain, it becomes clear that it’s a deliberate and meaningful act,”
Similarly, in Ancient Persia (now Iran) some tribes like the Zoroastrians, used to build towers of silence where they placed their dead to be eaten by birds. “Again, at first glance, this may look to us like cavalier (casual) abandonment, but there is nothing cavalier about building costly structures just for the dead”.
All cultures care about dead bodies but they care in different ways. Perhaps some people might think dressing a corpse – even performing cosmetic surgery on it as American undertakers are often expected to do – is strange? Increasingly in the UK too, dead bodies are drained of their natural fluids and filled with embalming liquid to preserve them. These practices may seem normal to us, but bizarre to others.
Rituals may have evolved to help us deal with death. We need these rituals, says Dr Jong, because our feelings about death can be ambivalent (mixed). “We’ve evolved to avoid physical threats, which is partly why corpses repulse us. Not only do they represent reminders of our mortality, but can also be sources of infectious disease. We are therefore torn between needing to dispose of a corpse that might bear germs and wanting to hold on to the body that is still recognizable as belonging to someone we have known and loved. This contradiction may be why we surround death with pomp (dramatic displays) and ceremony. A funeral means we aren’t just disposing of a corpse as if it were nothing. We’re saying goodbye to granddad. We still see him as a person. That’s the kind of explanation evolutionary anthropologists give, anyway.”
There is little evidence that the question of what a good death is occurred in early human hunter-gatherer societies. It is something that developed culturally over time. There is certainly a long Western tradition of thinking about this, starting as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers. In the European Middle Ages, the Church even used to publish manuals for dying well, called ars moriendi, the art of dying.
Over the centuries, there is less reliance on the Church as a singular institution, and so death was, like so many things, privatized, and people had to make their own judgements about how to die well.
“As you would imagine, most people when asked about what a good death is say they don’t want pain or loss of control. It’s become the dominant idea in the West that people should face death bravely, which is not unlike how the ancient Greeks thought about death. But why should people be brave and accepting of the end of their lives?
The belief in an afterlife runs psychologically deep and probably comes from our intuitions about the relationship between bodies and minds, The basic and deep-seated idea, that our minds – our memories, our emotions, our desires – are somehow distinct and separate from our bodies is what enables us to believe that while our bodies might die, we might somehow still go on, perhaps as immaterial souls.
Some people find belief in an afterlife very soothing. It can help with grief, loss and sadness. It’s comforting to think that one day we’ll be reunited with a loved one who’s died, in a world better than this one. Especially for people who have a very harsh life, thinking it will be better after death can help. For example, African-American slaves often sang songs about the afterlife to soothe their brutally cruel existence.
It is a small step from believing that humans consist of bodies and souls to believing in an afterlife, and a smaller step from that to believing in a pleasant afterlife in which we are reunited with our loved ones. Not all afterlife beliefs are pleasant, but they often are. Plus, “It’s not just the traditionally religious who possess afterlife beliefs,” “For as religious beliefs are declining in countries like the UK, belief in heaven declines much more slowly. God goes, but heaven remains.” And there are other ways that we keep the dead alive, without literally believing in heaven. By talking about someone who has died, looking at photos and films of them, and maybe even “talking” to them, we keep them alive in our minds, memories, and hearts. So in this sense, there is life after death.
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