On Death and What Comes After by Matthew Bellwood
“With the ancient Egyptian in all stations of life… there was a profound yearning for a good burial.” Howard Carter. The Tomb Of Tutankhamen. London: Excalibur Books, 1972
What happens after you die is an important question – in spite of the fact that it’s one that none of us really knows the answer to. Religions the world over offer promises of continued existence, either in a metaphysical afterlife or through the transmigration of the soul into another material body. Many philosophical thinkers claim that death is the ultimate end and that we live on only through our cultural legacies – the impact we have had on the lives of those still living. Meanwhile, today’s media scientists tell us that while we may have no conscious existence after death, the matter from which our bodies are constructed will be absorbed by the earth and live on in plant and animal life – perhaps even eventually being reabsorbed by other humans. Whether anything else remains of us however, is impossible to quantify.
The fact is, death remains a mystery to us – at least until it actually arrives – but the way in which we choose to imagine what happens once we die has profound implications for the way that we live.
I’ve spent a lot of my adult life teaching children about history – generally by encouraging them to dress up and act out various scenes, traditions and practices from different historical periods around the world. Over the last fifteen years, I’ve developed seven two-hour workshops, based around different topics on the primary school history curriculum. Many of these include activities that directly reference rituals and practices connected with the end of life - from embalming the (papier-mache) body of an Ancient Egyptian nobleman to building a funeral pyre for a dead Viking. In researching these topics, I’ve found myself fascinated by the sheer diversity of ideas that I have encountered.
Stone and bronze-age burials for example, offer clues as to the social status of those deceased, whilst goods placed in or near the graves suggest that pre-historic cultures had some sense of a continued existence for the dead – some sort of afterlife, where these items may have had a purpose or a value.
In ancient Egypt, bodies were dried and mummified, before being left in carefully prepared tombs, containing multitudinous grave goods. Written records tell us that the Egyptians believed that after death their souls would travel through a terrifying underworld before reaching a place where they would be judged by the gods. Their hearts would be weighed on a set of scales. Those deemed sinful would be swallowed by a horrifying beast called Ammut the devourer, whilst those deemed worthy would live on in an afterlife that was an idealised version of Egypt itself – though one devoid of sickness, hunger and physical labour. Clearly this was a culture whose concept of morality was reinforced through its beliefs about the afterlife.
For the Greeks and the Romans, the afterlife was a shadowy underworld, which was ruled by Hades, (or Pluto or Dis Pater). The dead were led beneath the earth by the god Hermes (or Mercury) and entered the realm by means of a ferry, which carried them across the river Styx. The deceased were given coins to pay the ferryman. These would be placed on their corpse – either on the eyes or under the tongue. On arrival in the underworld they would be judged according to the deeds of their life. The wicked were sent to Tartarus, a place of endless torment; those who had lived lives of great heroism and glory went to the elysian fields, a paradise free of toil; whilst those whose lives were judged to be ordinary or mediocre, were sent to the asphodel fields, a shadowy place, where they lived on as formless, hungry shades.
For some Norse people, the afterlife was a realm of mists and icy cold, part of which was ruled over by the goddess Hel. It was here that the souls of those who had died from infirmity and old-age would be gathered. This was in contrast to Valhalla and Folkvangr – places which held the souls of the glorious dead. These were men (and perhaps women) who had died in battle and proved themselves worthy to be part of the gods’ great army of souls, who would fight in the battle of Ragnarok at the end of the world. Death in battle was therefore seen as not only acceptable but even desirable. Both sexes would be equipped with tools and goods to take with them into the afterlife and the bodies of the dead were either buried or burned depending on local tradition.
In Tudor England, Christianity offered salvation for repentant sinners – a much needed solace in a world where life was often short, where around one third of children died before the age of 12 and many did not last out their first year of life. Epidemic diseases were rife and making one’s peace with the world and with God before death was an important part of one’s spiritual wellbeing. A Christian burial was seen as an essential part of a person’s journey towards the afterlife.
All the cultures described above had some belief in revenant spirits – (although these were not always officially sanctioned). In many of the ghost stories I’ve come across from these cultures, the dead return to haunt the living because they have not been properly laid to rest. Equally, many of these cultures practised a form of ancestor worship, meaning that wherever the dead went when they died, they could still remain in contact with the living and perhaps directly influence their lives.
One of the best parts of working on Part 5 - The Crossing, has been the opportunity to talk to different people about their beliefs about death. Many of these people have been religious but others have held more secular views. We’ve spoken to people from a variety different backgrounds – although of course, we have barely scratched the surface of the wide range of different cultural perspectives that exist here in contemporary Britain.
We have spoken to Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, who share a belief in the transmigration of the soul. In these traditions, the body is an empty vessel, the person who lived is gone completely, but part of them will live on, reborn in a new body. The person’s actions in this life determine in part the life that they will lead in the next, with all souls hoping to move towards a state of divine perfection. The details differ from faith to faith and indeed, from place to place, with different ideas and traditions arising in different areas, but the basic story remains the same.
We have spoken to people from the Christian faith, who believe in the resurrection to eternal life – a special realm prepared for the faithful by God and His angels. We have spoken to Muslims, who believe the dead will wait in their graves until the day of judgement, when Allah will reward those who have lived well and punish those who haven’t. We have spoken to Jewish people, for whom the emphasis is on life rather than death. Details of the afterlife are few in Judaism and emphasis is placed on living well and having faith in the essential goodness of God and his creation.
We have spoken to people who live outside of any particular religious tradition – people who see death as a natural process – a progression from one state of being into another – and find a spiritual power and meaning in the cycles of the planet Earth. And we have spoken to people who filter their experience through the lens of science – for whom death is simply a material process – the end of consciousness and nothing more.
Everyone it seems, believes something about death, although, of course, for the living, there is no definitive way of proving that we’re right and wrong. The important thing about these ideas then, is how they affect the way in which we live and the way in which we behave towards each other.
One way of thinking about culture is to see it simply as the stories that we live in. These stories influence our thoughts and our dreams. They shape the way in which we relate to each other and the way that we feel about our bodies, our lives and our “selves”. In turn we are able to influence these stories, changing them through our actions and interactions, into new forms which may or may not more clearly represent the way we feel about the world. We are inextricably linked to the culture in which we live. It is a part of us and we are a part of it.
All that we can truly say about death is that it happens, but that does not mean that the stories we tell about it are not important. In some ways, they are perhaps the most important stories of all as they help us to understand not only our mortality but our place in the universe, and our relationships with other living beings. As our research for The Crossing has shown, there is no definitive way of thinking about death, but knowing what you think about it and what other people think can only help to foster a greater understanding of what it is to be alive.