Living with Death

From ancient Egyptian tombs, to Irish and Scottish cairns, and East Asian cave paintings depicting burials, commemorating death has been a part of the human experience for millennia. We each experience death at some point and the way we respond to it is deeply personal. Bereavement is not solely a human condition either. Research has uncovered evidence showing many animal species engage in behavior indicative of grief. Scientific reasoning behind human and non-human animals mourning surmise that attachment, or love, for family, mates, friends and others close to you drive safety, protection, and reproduction. Neurobiologists conclude that attachment was evolutionarily selected for to ensure survival and that grief is a side-effect of that mechanism. These innate characteristics grew into complicated, multifaceted belief systems and behaviors surrounding life and death.

What started out as a hard-wired trait, with time, morphed into formalized rituals and practices. According to the “Funeral Guide” 2017 article, Why do we have funeral rituals?, “Humans are social animals and we have an inherent need to make sense of our surroundings. When someone we love dies, we can find it difficult to put the meaning of anything into context anymore.” While humans struggled to understand death and other unexplainable aspects of life, they created stories, myths, and eventually religions to help cope with loss and life’s mysteries. Scholar and author Huston Smith defines religion as “beliefs and patterns of behavior by which people try to deal with what they view as important problems that can’t be solved by other means: e.g. the need to confront and explain life and death. All cultures have religions, which are powerful and dynamic forces in human society.” The general belief in an afterlife, heaven, hell, and a soul are basically universal and have dictated behaviors associated with loss. Christianity and Judaism have varying beliefs regarding heaven and hell, but the generalized concepts of either eternal salvation or eternal damnation remain the same. The website “Interfaith Family” explains that the Talmud depicts Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, as a place of “spiritual fulfillment,” and Gehennom, Hell, as “a place of intense punishment and cleansing.” The Bible has many descriptions of judgments leading to either eternal life in Paradise or wrath and fury condemning the unrighteous to eternal fire and torment in what most translations consider Hell. People comfort themselves and others with the idea that loved ones will go to heaven after they die and eventually, they will meet up with them again upon their own death. Conversely, if people or loved ones were hurt by someone else, they are comforted believing that the perpetrator will suffer an equal punishment in hell.

Other popular religions have varying beliefs regarding death. Islam, for example, also believes in a Paradise and a Hell. Prominently Indian religions believe in reincarnation, that the deceased will begin a new life in a new body or form. South Asian religions hold similar beliefs to reincarnation describing a sort of rebirth. The major themes throughout all these religions recreate aspects from much more ancient myths and cultures. Not being able to comprehend death, coping with loss, and surviving amongst others compelled humans to create scenarios to help with the grieving process, but also to guide behaviors while living. Fearing hell or eternal damnation urges people to engage in good conduct while they are alive. While major religions still dominate most of the population, scientific discoveries, an understanding of evolution, and realizing the many reasons why and how people die have altered the way some humans deal with loss and loosens the grip fear has over living behaviors. This may include the ways we view sex and sexual relationships, marriage, sexual orientation, to more reckless or harmful behaviors. It also includes how we observe major life events, such as marriage, birth, and of course death.

Customary ways to treat the deceased, for mourners to dress and behave, where, when, and how to dispose of the remains are just a few areas where religious observances have strict guidelines, but more recently secular and environmentally friendly ways to minister to remains have also become popular. Some of these methods include mushroom suits, aquamation, sky burials, and eternal reefs. “Green burials,” or, “eco-burials” eliminate preserving the body with chemicals or embalming fluids and take place 24-48 hours after death. They use a biodegradable coffin and seek to limit any unnecessary environmental impact. The human need to grieve can still take the form of a ceremony without religious overtones. Non-religious gatherings to remember the deceased and to formally say goodbye help mourners express their feelings and offer condolences to loved ones.

The need to create religions, although born out of the need for survival and to help make sense of death, has since twisted into the actual cause of countless massacres. The fact that so much violence has been, and still is, caused by religion is a sort of phenomenon, but since religions are such powerful forces in human society, they can be used as ideological weapons to justify wars, invasions, and persecutions. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Thirty Years’ War, the Northern Ireland Conflict, the Holocaust, jihad in the Middle East, the Buddhist Uprising, are just a few. Modern times see new ways to wage religious war from suicide bombers who don’t fear death because they believe they will be honored in their afterlife, to Islamophobia causing hate crimes, to a rise of radical Christian fundamentalism in the United States that is causing a wave of intolerance, oppressive “religious freedom” laws, and general unrest. Religion went from helping humans deal with death to actually dealing in death. Presently, America is facing a white, Christian uprising that promotes guns, white male supremacy, and racial, religious, and cultural intolerance. The country is host to mass shootings at any given time, where the latest slaughter consisting of two mass shooting occurring less than 24 hours apart on August 3 and 4,  saw over 30 lives lost. The entire country shares condolences, holds memorial services, and attempts to come together universally regardless of belief systems. The families of those victims grieve together, yet separately based on their religion or lack thereof. It’s a labyrinthine cycle of belief systems causing murder then bringing strangers together to mourn.     

The Satanic Temple is a religion, but its tenets are clear. We do not proselytize, we are nonviolent, and we strive for justice. As Satanists we trust science, reject superstition, and aim to live compassionately without requiring the fear of supernatural retribution to do so. Losing a loved one may challenge these beliefs and may stimulate the desire to demonstrate our feelings or pay tribute in some grand way. Suffering the death of a loved one may compel us to consider the stories of an afterlife and heaven because it is a shock to our rationale to come to terms with death, especially of those we love deeply. As stated in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, “The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence. Death becomes a mere rite of passage, like puberty or a midlife crisis.” The psychological impact of loss affects everyone differently and the desire for something after death is understandable, but as Pinker suggests, life on Earth should not be diminished because it’s temporary; rather, its significance should be magnified for that reason and the lives of our loved ones regarded while they’re with us and after they’re gone with the utmost compassion.  


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One thought on “Living with Death”

  1. This is great. My father is dying of stage 4 brain cancer and refused a funeral which is fine, it would feel phony for a family of atheists. Instead we’ve decided to throw him a life celebration where all his friends can come and party with him and tell stories one last time. He’s excited about it, I’m nervous about it, but overall it seems way more fitting. His remains will go to the sea since he’s a fisherman. It’s been tough going through this surrounded by religion. Most people spew canned responses like “thoughts and prayers” or “miracles happen”….it doesn’t help, it actually makes it worse, because it’s BS and the comments just feel like a placeholder until they figure out what to say next. As a society we are so bad at handling grief from others. Everyone thinks there are magic words to make you feel better. But all that’s needed is a hug, to hold my hand, to tell me how much this sucks and validate my feelings. We need to do better.

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