Education, History

Fear and Loathing in Death

School is in again, and I will be writing for classes from time to time. I am taking History prior to 1500 and “Design, Perception, and Audience” this winter term. The history class, it turns out, is really a cultural anthropology class, disappointing since I have already taken that class at a different school. But I need this class to fulfill a requirement. And it’s only three weeks. This is a short essay comparing cultures and their takes on Death, assigned to be written after watching this video. 

Dayton Art Institute
Death mask – looking daggers at you. Photo taken at the Dayton Art Institute

Death, as they say, is inevitable. It comes to all of us. But the imagined form of Death, whether it stoops on us with raven’s wings and cruel talons rending our soul, or dances along the streets with castanets and an endless grin, that is all in our upbringing. Culturally, the perceptions of Death had changed through history, and comparing cultures, we see Death through many lenses.

The farther back you go in history, it seems, the more conscious a culture was of death. The ancient Egyptians spent most of their lives planning for their deaths, counting their living days a short time compared to an eternity in the time following their death. This take on an afterlife colored their perception of death: not that death is an end, but a mere beginning. Many cultures felt similarly, and embraced death with the belief that there was more to come when the body had shuffled off the mortal coil.

Buddhism and the philosophy of reincarnation took this a step further. If you were not well-behaved in this world, you would suffer in the next. That resonates with Christians, who were taught that hell or purgatory awaited the sinner on the other side of death’s doors. Buddhism offered some hope where Christianity did not. You have only one life, as a Christian, to get it right. Following Buddha, you get infinite chances to rectify your mortal errors. Death, then, lost its sting and was a revolving door to a place that might be horrible, but was only temporary.

The lens a culture viewed death through depended on many factors. In times of epidemic, death was a horror reaping all who stood in its path. In times of plenty, sacrifices to honor the dead who had come before could be spared. The death of children has always been a tragedy, except that for many cultures, children under a certain age were not considered human, which spared the grief of their family as they died more often than adults. Death is a kaleidoscope, then, changing with every turn, but we cannot take our eyes off the view.

2 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing in Death

  1. “Buddhism offered some hope where Christianity did not.”

    I had a funny reaction to this: “But Christians believe that you can still repent, even after you die, up till the day of Judgement!” but then I realized that this is specifically a Latter-day Saint doctrine. While Mormons are Christians, this isn’t a widely held doctrine among Christians in general…

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