Religious Views of Death

We are alive, therefore we must die. This is the simplest, most obvious truth of our existence, and yet very few people have really come to terms with it. Although intellectually we realize that one day we will die, generally we are so reluctant to think of our own death that this knowledge doesn’t touch our hearts, and we live our lives as if we were going to live forever. As a result, material possessions, reputation, popularity, wealth, and pleasure become extremely important, so we devote almost all of our time and energy to obtaining them and engage in many negative actions for their sake. We are so preoccupied with the concerns of this present life that there is little room in our mind for genuine spiritual practice. When the time of death actually arrives we discover that by having ignored death all this time we are completely unprepared for what lies ahead. In order to be prepared for death we must live and never be afraid to die. Death is not an ultimate end; it is a continuation or passage.

Death is returning to the same matter that a person once was before birth (Buddhism). Death is new life through reincarnation and rebirth (Buddhism and Hinduism), and death is a departure from the physical world and a passage to Heaven or Hell (Christianity) or a place of great reward (Judaism). In this essay, I argue that a person is dead when the soul, spirit, or essence is absent the body. My first reason for supporting the thesis is Buddhism. Buddhists do not look at death as a continuation of the soul but as an awakening. Death is merely a passage to rebirth in another realm such as the human world or a pure land. From the beginning, Buddhism has stressed the importance of death, since awareness of death is what prompted Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. Realizing that death is inevitable for a person who is caught up in material possessions, reputation, popularity, wealth, pleasures, and attitudes, he resolved to renounce the world and devote himself to finding a solution to this most basic of existential dilemmas. Buddhists stress the importance of body and soul as opposed to worldly possessions and pleasures. If you are attached to the possessions you have left behind, or if you feel attached to them through knowing that someone else is owning and enjoying your things, you will get angry with the people you have left behind, and that will certainly cause you to be born as a hell-being or a hungry ghost, even if you were going to reach a higher state.

Preparing for death and the state of mind, while dying, is also of great importance. While dying, the person can be surrounded by friends, family, and monks who recite Buddhist scriptures and mantras, such as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”, to help the person achieve a peaceful state of mind. “When the journey of my life has reached its end, and since no relatives go with me from this world I wander in the bardo state alone, may the peaceful and wrathful Buddha’s send out the power of their compassion and clear away the dense darkness of ignorance.” (Fremantle, Trungpa 103) In order for a Buddhist to be dead, his or her soul must be absent the body.

My second reason for supporting the thesis is Hinduism. Hindus believe in the rebirth and reincarnation of souls. Death should not be considered an end at all, but a natural process in the existence of soul as a separate entity, in a way by which it reassembles its resources, adjusts its course, and returns again to the earth to continue its journey as another form or being. They also believe that death is a temporary cessation of physical activity, a necessary means of recycling the resources and energy and an opportunity for the soul to review its programs and policies. When a Hindu dies, his or her soul leaves the body through an opening in the head (highest chakra). Death is not feared by Hindus, it is embraced and it is noble. Death is often referred to as mahprasthana – or the “great journey”. When lessons of this life have been learned and karmas reach a point of intensity, the soul leaves the physical body, which then returns its elements to the earth. The awareness, will, memory, and intelligence which we think of as ourselves continue to exist in the soul body.

Life is not separate from death, as the soul is not separate the body. If there is life, there must be death, and if there is death, there must be life. Hindus believe that in order to die a noble death, one must live life according to his or her dharma (an obligation to the caste) and karma. In each life, a Hindu strives to fulfill their dharma and karma in order to be reborn into a higher caste. When these are completely fulfilled, Brahmanism is reached. This can also be a form of enlightenment as well as Nirvana. In order to be reborn, one must die, and die multiple times. “Life is the breathing spirit. The breathing spirit, verily, is life. The breathing spirit, indeed, is immortality. For as long as the breathing spirit remains in this body, so long is there life.” (Fremantle, Trungpa 96) In order for a Hindu to be dead, his or her soul must be absent the body. My third reason for supporting the thesis is Christianity. Christians believe that living your life by the Bible is the way to gain eternal life after death. The reality of death is acknowledged as part of the current human condition, affected by sin.

The majority of western religions teach that after death one will either reap the fruits of Heaven, or suffer the damnation of Hell, based on a number of factors, which may include: whether or not one sought salvation through Jesus Christ, one’s actions, one’s beliefs at the instant of death, unforgiven sins at the time of death, and whether certain rituals and sacraments were performed during life and even after death. On the evil of death in general, whereby the union of soul and body is sundered. Wherefore, so far as the death of the body or, in other words, the separation of the soul from the body is concerned, it is not good for anyone when those who are said to be dying are undergoing it. After death the soul departs the body, migrating toward the judgment stage, after this stage, the soul proceeds to eternal reward (Heaven) or eternal punishment (Hell). In order for a Christian to be dead, his or her soul must be absent the body.

My fourth reason for supporting the thesis is Judaism. In Judaism, death is not a tragedy, even when it occurs early in life or through unfortunate circumstances. Death is a natural process. Jews hold a firm belief in an afterlife, a world to come, where those who have lived a worthy life will be rewarded. Judaism states that when one dies, the soul separates from the body, but does not go on to the afterlife. “For three days the soul hovers over the body, thinking it may go back into it, but when it sees that the appearance of the face has changed it departs.” (Life Cycle EventsâÂ?¦) In order for a believer in Judaism to be dead, his or her soul must be absent the body. Doctors, lawyers, coroners, medical examiners, courts, etc. will argue that death is not an absence of the soul, but a mere end to life. They will argue that death is, and has so far been, that stage in which a person’s body can no longer perform any useful or important activities, with or without scientific or technological assistance, and never will again, no matter what medicine or nature might do. Some refuse to believe that the bones of an individual buried will decompose, recycle, and become a new being. Others poke fun at the slightest thought of rebirth or reincarnation. The possibility, of course, remains open that some metaphysical or eschatological religious intervention might occur in which bones don flesh and the dead from ages past arise and live again, and if this ever happened we would have to re-think death as some sort of dormancy rather than as permanent perishing or annihilation of the body.

According to the Missouri General Assembly, For all legal purposes, the occurrence of human death shall be determined in accordance with the usual and customary standards of medical practice, provided that death shall not be determined to have occurred unless the following minimal conditions have been met. (1) When respiration and circulation are not artificially maintained, there is an irreversible cessation of spontaneous respiration and circulation; or (2) When respiration and circulation are artificially maintained, and there is a total and irreversible cessation of all brain function, including the brain stem and that such determination is made by a licensed physician. Although this statute is strictly for the state of Missouri, this general idea of death is accepted throughout the United States. Those in the medical field would state that it is impossible to define death as the separation of body and soul. If we consider death to be an ultimate end to the physical body for example, the heart stops, the brain stops, and the lungs no longer function, then it is impossible for Buddhism or Hinduism to exist, as well as the idea of reincarnation and rebirth.

Western civilization has taught us, as a whole, to cherish material possessions, reputation, popularity, wealth, and pleasure. Along with this comes the matter of fact. In order to “know” or have full knowledge we are taught that we must have proof. How do we determine death in America? We determine death by measurements. The idea of Buddhism and Hinduism are rarely accepted in Western culture because we have no proof, no solid evidence that reincarnation and rebirth occur. It is a tough concept to grasp that a loved one, buried sex feet under, is decomposing, and will eventually become one with the earth or will become another being. In some cases, this concept is just grotesque. As a society, we are more goal oriented, we are set in our ways, and we strive to prove the unknown, and we lack that faith. We are alive, therefore we will die. Many of us still refuse to acknowledge that one day we will die, and when that time comes, it may be too late. Live for the moment, and live to die!

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