Ideas of Life and Death

– Memento Mori – Mors Ultima Ratio –

Life and death, as a rule, are two mutually exclusive states of being. One cannot be mentioned without the other since death will always conclude life. Given the inevitability of death it is not surprising that all cultures at some point in time have been absolutely fascinated by its concept which has captured the imagination of all who perceive it. Death can also be described, more technically, as the end of a biological organism. Death has been represented in many different forms throughout different mediums from the church in the middle ages to art, literature and even film. In many religions e.g. Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, there has been a certain preoccupation with death that seems to have led to the conviction that life continues, is eternal, more real, substantial and fulfilling in the hereafter. The fact that ideas of death and the after-life has in some instances taken precedence over ideas of life is not an uncommon thing. The coming of evil in to the world is also closely related to death in some cultures and religions and is often connected with the appearance of sexual desire and hunger. To put it another way, the general belief seems to be that death is the worst and most basic break in the original normality of human life as it was meant to be in principle. Therefore, in the afterlife, this original normality of human life is restored to how it was meant to be. Many passages in the Hebrew Bible, for example, indicate that the early Jews looked upon death as rejoining ones fathers or ancestors. After death, existence would still continue in the place called She’ol (a place of darkness, cut off from the light of God) such as when Jacob is told that his son is dead, he replies that he would soon join him there (v.35, lit. Heb.). The dead (called Repha’im or ‘shades’) were considered to have certain psychic powers, however their realm of existence is so far removed from ours that there even seems to be a different law of physics that the living cannot comprehend (Job 10:21, 22). In later Hebrew eschatology, death came to be considered a prime evil and that at the end of days death would cease to be and all the dead would rise. The idea of resurrection became a fundamental doctrine of Pharisaic Judaism. According to the Rabbis, death came to the world because of sin.

The question of whether there is life after death does not fall under the umbrella of science; science is concerned only with the classification and study of sense information. Humans have been preoccupied with scientific theory, research and discovery in the modern sense of the term for only the last few centuries, whilst we have been familiar with the concept of life after death since time immemorial. The prophets of the world religions, Islam, Judaism, Christianity etc. called their people to worship the One God (the same God for each respective religion) and to believe in life after death. They put such emphasis on belief in the hereafter that doubting it meant denying God and all other beliefs meaningless.

Like Judaism and Christianity before it, Islamic tradition teaches the continuity of the soul and a transformed metaphysical existence after death. Muslims believe in a day of Judgment when all souls will be assigned eternal abodes in either paradise or hell. One of the central themes of the Qur’an is Yawm al Qiyamma or the Day of Awakening/Resurrection, in which every soul that ever lived will be raised from the dead and judged by God according to how they lived. One of the chief characteristics of Islamic tradition is that it does not make distinctions between the spiritual and material life. It aims to shape both existences as well as society as a whole. In other words, because everything is interconnected, what a person does in this life will affect the course of their destination in the next.

The Resurrection/Awakening and Judgement of God to all human souls seems to be the ultimate climax of belief and the highest development possible in theological thought and speculation. We may enquire as to ‘where did such ideas originate’? or ‘who taught it first’? However, there does not seem to be a definite answer. What we do know for certain is that this belief existed among the early Israelites and seems to have influenced Christianity and Islam respectively.

The Resurrection/Awakening that takes place during the ‘final hour’ is an actual physical occurrence. God will resurrect the dead, judge them and decide their fate. Except for the main theme of Tawhid (monotheism), the Qur’an speaks of the coming ‘end’ or ‘final judgment’ which is an inevitable consequence or effect of monotheism. If there is one God who knows all and sets the standards of behaviour for humanity, then naturally, judgment from God will be based on those standards and determine who has followed and adhered to His laws. This particular theme and promise is upheld not only in the Qur’an, but also in other religious scriptures. Though opinions may differ on the exact details, it is generally agreed that it is connected to a time of momentous upheaval, calamity and the end of all physical existence.

According to Hadith traditions, between the moment of death and the burial ceremony, the spirit of the deceased undergoes a journey and is presented with visions of heaven and hell, where it is granted an impression of the bliss or suffering that awaits in the hereafter. When the body is ready to be buried, the soul returns to observe the preparations for burial (washing the body, prayers) and to accompany the procession toward the cemetery. But before earth is piled upon the grave, an unusual reunion takes place; the spirit returns to dwell within the body and not to its final destination. In the grave, the deceased encounters two terrifying angels, Munkar and Nakir, who question the soul; inquisitors if you will. This questioning is meant to determine the level of faith and understanding a person has gained in life. If the deceased answers convincingly and has little sin on record, then the grave is transformed into a wide space that makes bearable the long wait to final judgment. However, if a person’s faith is imperfect, or has lived sinfully, the grave is transformed in to an oppressive, constricting space until the resurrection comes along.

Munkar and Nakir are the two angels that visit every newly deceased person in the grave and determine a persons hereafter. According to Islamic scripture and Hadith, after death, a person’s soul passes through a place called Barzakh (in some ways similar to the Hebrew She’ol), whilst the body is in the grave (if the person’s body was cremated, the soul will rest in the earth near their place of death). The questioning begins when the funeral is over and the last person of the funeral congregation has stepped seventy paces away from the burial site. Nakir and Munkar prop the deceased soul upright in the grave and ask three questions: “Who is your Lord? Who is your Prophet? What is your religion?”. The questions act as an exposure of the reality of the state of their Nafs (self/soul/id) and is an examination of how near to the understanding and faith their soul is to the substance of the Qur’an and to the heart of the Prophet and how closely the soul corresponds to the book/s of revelation.

Although the two inquisitor angels have been vividly imagined and earnestly discussed by many theologians, there is some doubt as to whether they are actually part of Islamic belief as described in the Hadith. The Qur’an states that souls will be tried and judged in their graves yet offers nothing on Nakir and Munkar. The Hadith, which holds almost equal weight among many Muslims as the Qur’an however, mentions them on a few occasions. Many, including orthodox theologians (Ash‘ari) firmly believe in the visitation of the two angels. Furthermore, in Jewish belief, Satan is both the Angel of Death and the prosecutor in the afterlife. The angels Nakir and Munkar seem to be a further development of this all – purpose angel (although in Islam, Satan is not an angel, but a jinn).

In the Abrahamic religions (at least in Judaism and Islam), reciting a declaration of faith before death is encouraged so that a person dies with the word/name of God on their lips as a final parting to the material world and as an affirmation that they leave this world a true believer. In Hadith narrations by Abu Sa’id al-Khuthari and Abu Hurayrah, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said “Prompt your dying ones (to say): laa ilaaha il-lal-laah (there is no God but Allah), and whoever’s last words before dying are: laa ilaaha il-lal-laah, will enter Paradise one day, even if he is afflicted before that by punishment”. Muslims are also encouraged to be present when non Muslims are dying in order to present Islam to them, in the hope that they will accept Islam prior to death.

In a Tradition narrated by Abu Hurayra:

The Prophet of God related: “I testify that there is no god worthy of worship but Allah and that I am the Messenger of Allah. Any servant who meets Allah with those two (testimonies), having no doubt in them, will enter Paradise”.

A similar custom of using a declaration of faith upon death is also found in Judaism:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ecḥad – “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut 6:4)

A person of the Jewish faith who is near death is encouraged to utter the Shema, or if they are too weak, whoever is nearest to them must recite it within earshot. Similarly, the Shema is a mirror of the Qur’anic verse “Say, He is Allah, the One” (Qur’an 112)

The universal idea that there is an after life has been called an “odd Phenomenon” (Lawrence Stone, 1978) with the realisation that, ultimately, the fate of all living things is death, which puts in to perspective the value of life. With the aforementioned religions, ‘life’ in its most complete form lies in the future; that is to say, the hereafter. In other words, all our experiences, present conduct, behaviour and knowledge are in preparation for this eventuality (Eliade, vol 4, p. 543). In scientific terms however, it is as if the rational, thinking brain makes man unique in the fact that he is aware that death is an undeniable inevitability. However at a deeper, subconscious level, the more intuitive part of the brain cannot seem to overcome the fact that it will eventually expire (Lawrence Stone, 78).

No other creature on earth is as aware of its own death as humans are. The human being can rationalise and understand almost anything to varying degrees, and the one thing that is most certain to life is its mortality. Thus, in order to preserve ourselves for future generations we have constructed culture, civilisation, religion etc. Historically, religion, science and culture would eventually provide symbolic constructions of death which are integrated with socially dominant values or structures of meaning.

In Krishnamurtis’s commentaries on the living ( 1996), he has an exchange with a man who is on his death bed. The dying man relates that he has studied and read many books throughout his life yet he is not ready to die because he does not know what would happen to his ‘self’ after his death; so he asks Krishnamurti what awaits him, that is if anything truly does occur on the ‘other side’. The reply the man receives is one he has already heard from one of Krishnamurti’s lectures “if we don’t know what living is, can we ever know what death is? living and dying may be the same thing, and the fact that we have separated them may be the source of great sorrow” (p.62). However, upon hearing this, the dying man insists that he wants to know what lies ahead, and most importantly “is there an identified continuity after death? This ’me’ which has enjoyed, suffered, known; will it continue?” (p.63). Krishnamurti suggests that the ’me’ to which the man is referring to is just an “identification with people, property and ideas” (p.63) that the dying man wanted to continue with beyond death. That he did not know death, as no living person can, is what made him fear. His family would be well cared for after his passing, there was nothing further for him to achieve in life yet he was still afraid. Krishnamurti comes to the realisation that the reason he is afraid is because of the natural human tendency to fear what we do not know and goes on to suggest “the ’known’ is sorrow, and yet you crave for its continuance” (p.63) in other words, to continue living with the ailing state that he was already in is to continue suffering and that the ‘known’ is already clear and familiar; familiarity allows us to feel secure, but at the same time it is “so small, so petty, so confining” (p.63).

In order to put the dying mans mind at ease Krishnamurti suggests “the unknown is greater than the known” (p.63), this is true regarding what we know about life compared to what we know about death. Similar to the teachings of the Buddha, where the search for answers to all metaphysical questions concerning life could be detrimental to human experience, peace and contentment, Krishnamurti believed that the journey of life, death and the quest for answers was one that had to be undertaken alone, and to understand that in death, or at least beforehand, there must be no comfort found in knowledge, experience or memories; for these are in the realm of life. “The mind must be purged of all things it has gathered in its urge to be secure; its gods and virtues must be given back to the society that bred them. There must be complete, uncontaminated aloneness” (p.64).

– Krishnamurti –

When a child is born it knows nothing, literally tabula rasa. Only through experience, knowledge and understanding do we come to know the world around us, feel secure, and build relationships. By expelling all these ‘interferences’ from our minds we are, in effect, preparing for a kind of rebirth. By ‘clearing the slate’ as it were, Krishnamurti tells the man that he is preparing for a new state of being and entering a new stage of existence as a new born would. To sum up, whatever the man had learned or experienced in life will mean very little to where he is ultimately destined, if he is even destined for anywhere at all. Similarly, the teachings of the Buddha say that the ultimate goal of human life is to suppress all “witless desires, obliterate the causes of suffering” (Eliade, p.546, vol. 8). Krishnamurti’s exchange brings to mind the Augustine statement, to the effect, that ‘he knows love until asked to define it’; this can be used in context with defining life. In as much as there are many ways to describe the word ‘Mysticism’ there are many ways to describe ‘life’ and ‘living’ in tangible and abstract ways, yet the hereafter remains a mystery.

Scholars such as Thomas Nagel (American Philosopher) suggest that perhaps there is no ‘one’ particular meaning to life or, possibly, that it may well be meaningless, similar to Krishnamurti’s ‘do we even need a purpose’? Terry Eagleton (British literary critic) writes “the meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way” (2007, p. 164). Eagleton writes: “it is not metaphysical but ethical. It is not something separate from life, but what makes it worth living” (p.164). Like the teaching of the Buddha, the point is, instead of wasting our time in contemplation on things that we will most likely never know and only cause strife and dissention, then perhaps it is better to actually ‘live’ rather than ponder the reasons for it. If God is a being that in itself cannot be explained by outside means, then why bother with what is not within our reach?

Thanatology, the study of death, investigates the circumstances and reasons that lead up to a persons death, the grief of those close to the deceased and also the social attitudes towards death such as memorialisation, eulogising the dead, cremation etc. Thanatos (Greek) was the demonic personification of death and mortality and although mentioned frequently by different characters in the Greek myths, rarely made an appearance. In the world of psychology (psychoanalysis) however, Freud suggests that Thanatos is a part of what is called the death drive (Freud, ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’, 2002).

– Sigmund Freud –

The ‘death drive’ is essentially what moves us to return to a state of calm I.e. an inorganic and dead state. This was also connected to the libido. His description of libido includes all creative and life furthering instincts making them instinctive drives (Ibid). Freud proposes the ‘death drive’ to be an an innate thing and that civilisation distorts its natural aggression to impose a terrible burden of guilt upon us (Ibid) e.g. our aggressiveness is a part of us, a natural thing; however, civilisation and the ‘civilised’ world distorts our understanding of this natural instinct and somehow detaches it from ourselves because it is has come to be viewed as wrong or dirty. This brings to mind the character created by Robert E. Howard which was first published in 1932, Conan the Barbarian. In the short stories Howard wrote for pulp magazine ’Weird Tales’ we are introduced to the the adventuring barbarian where we find ideas and narratives that clearly exhibit some of Howard’s own proclivities and philosophies which seem to be in congruence with Freud’s ‘death drive’, innate aggression, and discontents of the civilised world:

When a nation forgets her skill in war, when her religion becomes a mockery, when the whole nation becomes a nation of money-grabbers, then the wild tribes, the barbarians drive in… Who will our invaders be? From whence will they come? From a letter to Tevis Clyde Smith (July 1923)

What do I know of cultured ways, the gilt, the craft and the lie? I, who was born in a naked land and bred in the open sky. The subtle tongue, the sophist guile, they fail when the broadswords sing; Rush in and die, dogs—I was a man before I was a king – The Phoenix on the Sword (1932)

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing” – The Tower of the Elephant (1933)

– Robert E. Howard –

The problem with studying the potential for life after death is that in order to experience it… well… we have to die… i’m sure you can see the problem here. Another problem is that we cannot communicate with the deceased since all bodily functions have terminated. Because of these ‘obstacles’ to examination, studying death can only be perceived from the outside when someone/thing dies. Death is the natural destination of man, or at least it is considered to be in accordance with the primordial will of the God/s and as such is to be accepted, if not without question, then at least in acquiescence.

In some cultures it is the death of a God or some mythic figure that gave rise to the existence of death in the world. In the traditions of the natives of North America, the Shuswap, we learn that the son of a heavenly chief died for reasons unknown. His death was the first, and since then all humans have been subjected to this affliction. In other cultures death is the result of man being cheated by a god or some other mischievous deity. Yet, however we look at it, in every story or myth, man is destined for that great unknown. In the epic of Gilgamesh we learn how the quest for immortality (life eternal) can be futile when the inevitability of the grave has been preordained:

Gilgamesh, where are you roaming?

You shall not find the life you search after!

When the Gods created mankind,

They destined death for man,

But life they kept firmly in their own hands

After the death of his friend Enkidu, Gilgamesh roamed the world in search of eternal life, but in the end his quest was without success.

In a study by Robert Henry Codrington on a Melanesian myth on the origin of death, it is related that at first, man did not die (R. H. Codrington, 1881). Instead, he shed his skin and cast it off like the snake and was made anew. In this same narrative, a woman who was growing old went to a stream in order to shed her skin and cast it in to the water. As she was watching it go down the stream she noticed that the skin got caught on a stick. When she went home to her child whom she had left in order to renew herself, the child refused to recognise her, saying that its mother was an older woman and not this young girl. The woman then went back to the stream and found the skin she had cast aside and put it back on in order to become old again. It was from this point onwards that man stopped shedding his skin and was prone to old age and the ravages of time (p.265). This is a rare case where it is the human that chooses death so as not to confuse the natural order i.e. the child not recognising its mother.

According to another myth, the inhabitants of the Sulawesi Islands in West Ceram, humans originally emerged from bananas that grew at the base of a sacred mountain. All living things and all those things that sustain them ( foods and diverse sources of wealth) were all the result of the sacrifice of a coconut maiden, Hainuwele. After her sacrifice (presumably by nature or the universe) several parts of her body were removed and sown in to the surrounding landscape. With this act of sacrifice and returning to the earth, her body became a source of sustenance and nourishment for all living creatures. This ‘primal murder’ (Eliade, p.542, vol. 8) was also the occasion for the introduction of death in to the world. Suffice it to say , death becomes a necessary precondition for the creation and maintenance of life. We find that in many cultures, there exists a connection, or at least an indirect one, between the introduction of death to the world and the origin of both countless imperfections that are intrinsic to the human condition including the emergence of evil.

Whatever may be the case for life, death or the hereafter, perhaps living life itself to the best of our abilities and convictions is what makes things worthwhile. Yes, memento mori, but living as robustly as possible is what its all about (responsibly that is).

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” – Deut: 19 –

“The servants of the Lord of Mercy are those who walk gently upon the earth…” –Qur’an 25:63 –

The Eccentric Seeker

References

Books:

R. H. Codrington, The Melanesians (Oxford, 1891)

Terry Eagleton, The meaning of life, Oxford: Oxford university press, 2007

J. Krishnamurti, Commentaries on living: 3rd series, Quest books, U.S, 1996

Mircea Eliade, The encyclopaedia of Religion Vol. 4, Macmillan and free press, New York, 1982

Mircea Eliade, The encyclopaedia of Religion Vol. 8, Macmillan and free press, New York, 1982

Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its discontents, Penguin books, 2002.

Online sources:

http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/

Lawrence Stone, Death and its history, NYR, 12 Oct 1978

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