Research Paper

Death And Dying In Different Cultures

Abstract

This paper shall seek to analyze the concepts of death and dying in Christian and Hindu cultures and shall try to discuss the similarities and the dissimilarities between the beliefs and the rituals of both the religions. The paper shall also look at the symbolic significance of certain rituals. The paper shall look at how rituals related to death are sociologically important.

The manner in which death is treated and the rituals surrounding death are conducted in a society tells one a lot about the culture of that society and the civilization. Death for most societies, according to Robert Hertz, was not only about the person who had died but also about the survivors. Funeral rites are a means of preserving the structure of the society that the dead person lived in. The rituals of the death ensure that there is a suitable procedure to be followed that would ensure that the existing hierarchies would not be disturbed in the society (“Robert Hertz”, 2011).

The rituals of most societies thus assign roles to different individuals in a family and in the clergy that serves to ensure continuation and regeneration in the society as well. This paper shall seek to analyse the rituals of death that are followed in Hindu and Christian societies that treat their dead in extremely different ways. This is owing to a great extent, to the different fates that people belonging to these different cultures attribute to the departing soul. The death rites of a culture are in many ways related to and dependent upon the religious structures that are a part of that society. Old and new structures contribute to each other in a fluid process that goes on. Despite the differences that cultures have in treating their dead, one can see a desire that runs through them to connect with the departed and ensure the dead person’s welfare in another world; a desire to cling on to the belief that the dead person was still alive in another form that would be better than his or her earthly form, a form to which the survivors could then aspire to in the period following their death.

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In countries that belong to the west and follow Christianity, there is a more or less uniform procedure that is followed after the death of a person. The death of a person in Christian cultures would mean that the soul of that person had departed to either heaven or hell according to the actions that he or she had performed. In many sects of Christianity, the act of confession is performed when a person is about to die so that his or her sins are forgiven before the soul departs. Heaven and hell are concepts that are intricately connected to death and the life of the Christian believer who bases his entire life and the actions that he performs during it on a desire to enter heaven and attain proximity to God and escape the torments of hell. Dying thus is an occasion that is not meant for mourning since the soul attains the opportunity to finally be united with God. A belief in Jesus enables the dead person to attain salvation, which is synonymous with a union with God. Death is thus an extremely important event in Christian cultures because it reminds the survivors of their mortality and the need for belief in Jesus, which in Christian cultures, would be the first step to attaining an eternity of bliss. Any mistake in this entire process would, according to Christian beliefs, open up to the individual the pathway to hell that meant an eternity of unimaginable torment (“History of Christian Death Rites”, 2011). Following the death of a person, Christian rituals demand that the dead person be anointed and placed in a coffin and following the prayers that are said for this person in a church, in the presence of his or her loved ones, he or she would be buried.

There are a lot of symbolic elements that are a part of this ritual. The process of burying a person is symbolic of the return to the earth. Adam, the first man, is considered to have been created out of dust. A burial meant a return to dust, since the body of the deceased would undergo a process of putrefaction and become a part of the earth in a while. The Christian God’s promise to man of his mortality whereby he would return to the matter from which he was created is sought to be fulfilled through this ritual. The adherence to religion is maintained in this ritual which derives its authority from religion. The presence of loved ones and other members of the society ensures that the entire procedure is as much a social event as it is an event of the family of the deceased and this enhances the religious character of the event since religion is essentially a social institution. The continuation of the religious structures and the hierarchies of the family and the status of the family within the society are ensured through a funeral that assumes greater implications than just a farewell for the dead person (“History of Christian Death Rites”, 2011).

Despite the fact that the Hindu beliefs regarding death and the fate of the soul are entirely different form that of Christianity; there are many similarities between the Hindu and Christian ways of treating death. Hindus believe in the concept of the soul too. The fate of the soul is not necessarily permanent, though, in Hindu faith. A change from the earth to other spheres depending on the actions of the person is possible. This change may occur towards a lower or a higher sphere. An understanding of the nature of the soul and knowledge of the figure of God is what is required for the Hindu believer to gain the ultimate salvation that he can. Thus, death becomes only one of the many stages of the life of a Hindu as it is only when he or she gains a release from this cycle of life and death that salvation is attained by the believer. The rituals that are followed during the death of a person in these cultures also reflect these beliefs. The lack of value that the body as a covering has is reflected in the way in which the body is burned and the ashes are immersed in a river.

The balls of rice that are fed to the crows are arranged in the form of a human body and this is another symbol for the worthlessness as nothing but a stage in the life of a soul. The body is then seen as nothing but the earthly covering of the soul, which may move on to better stages in other births that could follow the earthly life as a result of the actions of the believer. The burning of the body of the deceased also symbolizes the purification of the soul from the effects of the earthly life of the believer.

The function of these rituals may appear to be more personal and spiritual than the Christian ones that have been discussed in this paper; however, the Hindu rituals are as conformist as the others as they maintain the hierarchies of the caste system that characterizes Hindu society as it is only the Brahmins who can perform the rites that are a part of the funeral (“Rituals Related to Death in Hindu Family”, n.d.).
Cultures such as the ones that have been discussed in this paper are different but have many similarities as well. This may be owing to the conditions of human existence that are universal. The universal nature of death that transcends cultures is also probably a reason for the similarities that are present in different cultures as far as their beliefs and rituals are concerned. The external conditions that are present in a person’s life, however, do contrive to change the other characteristics of this phenomenon.

References

“History of Christian Death Rites”. (2011).Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying. Retrieved from
<http://www.deathreference.com/Ce-Da/Christian-Death-Rites-History-of.html#b>
“Rituals Related to Death in Hindu Family”. (n.d.) Religious Portal. Retrieved from
<http://www.religiousportal.com/HinduDeathRituals.html>
“Robert Hertz”. (2011),Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying. Retrieved from
<http://www.deathreference.com/Gi-Ho/Hertz-Robert.html#b>

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