Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective

The fear of death and the belief in life after death are universal phenomena. Social scientists have long been interested in the questions of how the similarities and the differences in the views of afterlife and the social reactions to death of different cultures be explained, and the systematic order that can be found in these similarities and differences. This entry attempts to shed light on a few anthropological, sociological aspects of the organization and distribution of these ideas in connection with the afterlife.

Death As Empirical Taboo and the Consequent Ambivalence

Human consciousness cannot access one's own death as an inner experience. In other words, death is an ineluctable personal experience, which remains outside of an individual's self-reflection throughout his or her entire life.

However, during their lives humans might be witnesses to several deaths, for the quest of the survivors after the substance of death follows the same Baumanian "cognitive scheme" as when they think about the substance of their own mortality. "Whenever we 'imagine' ourselves as dead, we are irremovably present in the picture as those who do the imagining: our living consciousness looks at our dead bodies" (Bauman 1992, p. 15) or, in the case of someone else's death, the agonizing body of "the other."

Therefore, when speaking about the cognitive ambivalence of death, this entry refers to the simultaneous presence of (1) the feeling of uncertainty emerging from the above-mentioned empirical taboo character of death, and (2) the knowledge of its ineluctability. This constellation normally constitutes a powerful source of anxiety.

It is obvious that a number of other situations can also lead to anxieties that, at first sight, are very similar to the one emerging from the cognitive ambivalence of death. However, while such experiences can often be avoided, and while people normally have preceding experiences about their nature, by projecting these people might decrease their anxiety. The exceptionally dramatic character of the cognitive ambivalence of death emerges both from its harsh ineluctability, and from the fact that people have to completely renounce any preceding knowledge offered by self-reflection.

The Concept of Death As a Social Product

In order to locate the problem of death in the social construction of reality in a more or less reassuring way, and thus effectively abate the anxiety emerging from the cognitive ambivalence of death, every culture is bound to attribute to it some meaning. This meaning, accessible and perceivable by human individuals, involves constructing a unique concept of death and afterlife. Naturally, there is great difference in the intensity of the necessity of meaning attribution to death between different cultures. The construction of a death concept (partially) alleviates the empirical taboo of death, and makes it meaningful. This "slice" of knowledge as an ideology, as a "symbolic superstructure" settles on the physiological process of death, covering, reconceptualizing, and substituting it with its own meanings (Bloch 1982, p. 227).

The necessity of anthropomorphizing. It can hardly be argued that more or less the whole process of the construction of knowledge on the nature of death is permeated by the epistemological imperative of anthropomorphizing. The essence of this mechanism, necessarily resulting from death as an empirical taboo, is that individuals essentially perceive death and afterlife on the pattern of their life in this world, by the projection of their anthropomorphic categories and relations.

The significance of anthropomorphizing was emphasized at the beginning of the twentieth century by a number of scholars. As Robert Hertz claims, "Once the individual has surmounted death, he will not simply return to the life he has left . . . He is reunited with those who, like himself and those before him, have left this world and gone to the ancestors. He enters this mythical society of souls which each society constructs in its own image" (Hertz 1960, p. 79). Arnold van Gennep argues, "The most widespread idea is that of a world analogous to ours, but more pleasant, and of a society organized in the same way as it is here" (van Gennep 1960, p. 152).

Anthropomorphizing the ideas concerning the other world, in other words "their secularization," is present in all religious teachings with greater or less intensity. It can also be found in systems of folk beliefs that are not in close connection to churches or religious scholars. It is an obviously anthropomorphic feature of the Hungarian peasant system of folk beliefs that is far from being independent from Christian thinking. According to the members of the Hungarian peasant communities, for example, the surviving substance generally crosses a bridge over a river or a sea in order to reach the other world. Before crossing, the soul has to pay a toll. It is also an anthropomorphic image from the same cultural sphere that on the night of the vigil the departing soul may be fed with the steam of the food placed on the windowsill of the death house, and can be clad by clothes handed down to the needy as charity. Anthropomorphic explanation is attributed to the widespread practice of placing the favorite belongings of the deceased in the tomb. These items are usually placed by the body because the deceased is supposed to be in need of them in the afterlife.

The need to rationalize the death concept. In most cases images concerning the other world take an institutionalized form, that is their definition, canonization, and spreading is considerably influenced by certain social institutions—generally by a church or an authorized religious scholar.

While constructing the reality enwrapping death, the assertions of these social institutions draw their legitimacy from two basic sources. The first is the anthropomorphic character of their death concept, namely that this concept promises the fulfillment of the people's natural desire for a more or less unbroken continuation of existence, which almost equals to an entire withdrawal of death as a metamorphose. The second is the worldly influence these social institutions, comprising mostly the control of the process and social spaces of socialization, which lays at the basis of the normative efficiency of these social institutions, and which thus endows the beliefs distributed by them with the appearance of reality and legitimacy.

A key duty of those constructing the death concept is, therefore, to create a feeling of probability and validity of this slice of knowledge, and to provide the continuous maintenance of the same. This can be fulfilled on the one hand by the reproduction of the normative competence laying at the basis of the legitimacy, and on the other hand by the "rationalization" or "harmonization" of the death concept—that is, by the assimilation of its elements to (1) the extension and certain metamorphoses of the normative competence; (2) the biological dimension of death; and (3) other significant social and cultural changes.

The necessity of the harmonization of some of the changes of normative competence with the death concept is well exemplified by the twentieth-century eschatological, ceremonial, and moral Christian sanctions against suicides. In the background of this change can be found both the decomposition of the (at least European) hegemony of Christian readings of reality, the pluralization of religiosity at the end of the millennium, and the exacerbation of the "open market competition" for the faithful, as well as the modification of the social judgement or representation on the "selfdetermination of life" (Berger 1967, pp. 138–143).

On the other hand, the social institution responsible for constructing and controlling death concepts can never lose sight of the biological aspect of life, which obviously sets limits to their realityconstructing activity: They are bound to continuously maintain the fragile harmony between the physiological dimension of mortality and the ideology "based on it," and to eliminate the discomposing elements (Bloch and Parry 1982, p. 42). The same concept is emphasized by Robert Hertz based on Melanesian observations:

... the dead rise again and take up the thread of their interrupted life. But in real life one just has to accept irrevocable fact. However strong their desire, men dare not hope for themselves 'a death like that of the moon or the sun, which plunge into the darkness of Hades, to rise again in the morning, endowed with new strength.' The funeral rites cannot entirely nullify the work of death: Those who have been struck by it will return to life, but it will be in another world or as other species. (Hertz 1960, p. 74)

The aforementioned thoughts on the harmonizing of the physiological dimensions of death and the death concept can be clarified by a concrete element of custom taken from the European peasant culture. It is a well-known phenomenon in most cultures that the survivors strive to "blur" the difference between the conditions of the living and the dead, thus trying to alleviate the dramatic nature of death. It is the most practically and easily done if they endow the corpse with a number of features that only belong to the living. However, the psychological process induced by death obviously restrains these attempts. The custom of feeding the returning soul, which was present in a part of the European peasant cultures until the end of the twentieth century, provides a great example. The majority of the scholarship discussing this concept is about symbolic forms of eating/feeding (that is, the returning soul feeds on the steam of food; the food saved for the dead during the feast or given to a beggar appear on the deceased person's table in the afterlife). Texts only occasionally mention that the dead person takes the food as the living would do. If the returning soul was supposed to eat in the same manner as the living, it would have to be endowed with features whose reality is mostly and obviously negated by experience (according to most reports the prepared food remains untouched), thus they would surely evoke suspect concerning the validity and probability of the beliefs. The soul must be fed in a primarily symbolic way because the worldly concept of eating needs to be adjusted to the physiological changes induced by death as well, so that it would also seem real and authentic for the living.

Finally, the social institution controlling the maintenance of the death concept has to harmonize its notions about the substance of death continuously with other significant slices of reality as well, namely, with some changes of society and culture. Consider the debates on reanimation and euthanasia in the second half of the twentieth century. These debates constrained the Christian pastoral power to create its own standpoints, and to partly rewrite some details of the Christian concept of death such as other-worldly punishments of the suicides.

These examples demonstrate that the complete freedom of the attribution of meaning in the construction of death concept is a mere illusion. This freedom is significantly limited by the fact that these beliefs are social products; in other words, that the factors indispensable to the successful social process of reality construction—to make a belief a solid and valid reading of the reality for the "newcomers in socialization"—are generally fairly limited.

See also: Buddhism ; Chinese Beliefs ; Death System ; Gennep, Arnold van ; Hinduism ; Immortality ; Mind-Body Problem ; Near-Death Experiences ; Social Functions of Death ; Philosophy, Western


Bauman, Zygmunt. Mortality, Immortality and Other Life Strategies. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1992.

Berger, Peter L. The Sacred Canopy. Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Bloch, Maurice. "Death, Women, and Power." In Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry eds., Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Bloch, Maurice, and Jonathan Parry. "Introduction." Death and the Regeneration of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Hertz, Robert. "A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death." In Rodney and Claudia Needham trans., Death and the Right Hand. New York: Free Press, 1960.


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