Life After Death

The paper provides a novel insight into human beliefs about the afterlife from a cross-cultural perspective. The methods and objectives of the paper are discussed. The paper explores the commonalities and differences in human beliefs about life after death across different cultures.

Life After Death
Death and the afterlife are the two peculiar subjects of anthropological discussion. For years, the topic of the afterlife beliefs in anthropology and its cross-cultural implications had been neglected or underresearched. Anthropologists either considered the topic of the afterlife as a cultural and social taboo or limited their observations to death and mourning rituals. Because anthropology originated in the west, the hearts and minds of anthropology professionals have been long dominated by the western philosophy of the afterlife, leaving no room for cross-cultural analysis. Today, when globalization results in the complex mixture of cultural and ethnic beliefs and when technology provides limitless opportunities for anthropological research, the topic of cross-cultural variations in afterlife beliefs becomes increasingly challenging. That is why professionals must engage in a detailed cross-cultural analysis of human beliefs about life after death.
The current paper pursues several objectives. First, given the lack of scientific agreement on the cross-cultural implications of afterlife beliefs in anthropology, this paper will seek to close the existing gaps in knowledge about how different cultures view and treat life after death. Second, this paper will provide a brief observation of afterlife beliefs across different cultures. Third and, probably, the most important, this paper will analyze the commonalities and differences in afterlife beliefs across different cultures. This paper will try to avoid the dominant influence of western cultural beliefs on scientific judgments and will create an objective picture of cross-cultural variations in human beliefs about life after death.
The lack of generalizations and profound analysis regarding afterlife beliefs in different cultures justifies the need for the current research. Anthropologists always stood in a peculiar relation to death (Robben, 2004). For some of them, limited experiences of death encounters at home led to erroneous beliefs that their death culture was much poorer than that of other societies (Robben, 2004). Others used their ethnographic experiences to impose western beliefs about death and the afterlife on other cultures (Robben, 2004). As a result, anthropologists exist in a distortive opposition between their own culture and the death culture of other large and small-scale societies. In its current state, anthropology of death is nothing but a multitude of separate ethnographic reports about death cultures in different parts of the world. In their research, anthropologists rarely or never apply to the benefits of cross-cultural analysis and avoid generalizations. The knowledge about cross-cultural variations in afterlife beliefs is rather scarce, and additional research is needed to shed the light on the most controversial aspects of afterlife anthropology.
The study of life after death and afterlife beliefs in different cultures is anthropological for several reasons. First, death is primarily a human problem and often, god and religion have nothing to do with the event of death (Parkes, Laungani  Young, 1997). Since humans do not know what lies beyond the boundary of death events and what happens to people upon their death, humans generate and spread their own beliefs and assumptions about what it may be like to be dead. The questions of what a human soul is, what happens in the afterlife, what a person must do in order to be granted the right for reincarnation, etc., are among the basic issues of human concern. That is why death and the afterlife can become excellent objects of anthropological analysis.
Second, the biological inevitability of death is among the basic reasons that may lead anthropologists to research and analyze the differences and commonalities in cross-cultural conceptualizations of afterlife beliefs (Robben, 2004). Again, the biological inevitability of death, although characteristic of all species and plants, is primarily a human concern, as long as it contradicts to human beliefs in spiritual and moral immortality (Robben, 2004). Third, the multidisciplinary character of death and afterlife discussions does not deny the central position of humans in the afterlife scientific discourse. Regardless of the particular scientific perspective, be it psychology, sociology, or science, humans are always the central objects of analysis. Humans are the primary sources of death concerns and are the primary carriers of various beliefs about life after death. For this reason, nowhere else is the topic of the afterlife as urgent, complex, interesting, and controversial, as it is in anthropology.
For the purposes of the current study, this paper will apply to the variety of information sources, including books, internet resources, printed journal articles, and TV programs. These information resources will provide better opportunities for the analysis of the existing research inconsistencies and knowledge gaps and will, simultaneously, serve a reliable source of generalizations about cross-cultural beliefs about the afterlife. The use of multiple resources is justified by the need to identify and explore the variations in the afterlife beliefs across different cultures and to provide recommendations for future research.
In one of its programs, National Geographic explored and discussed ancient Egyptians beliefs about life after death. According to Dr. Zahi Hawass, ancient Egyptians treated the afterlife as the beginning of a fascinating journey, in which resurrection and the proximity of the sun exemplified the highest level of self-consciousness a dead person could dream to achieve (National Geographic, 2009). As a result, Egyptians engaged in unprecedented preparations to death, to make sure they could prevent or at least minimize the dangers on their way to the highest levels of resurrection and spirit (National Geographic, 2009). Yet, Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife present only one side of the cross-cultural picture of life after death. Because death is common for all humans without any exception and because no individual and no culture knows anything about what happens to people after they die, all cultures develop and exercise their own systems of afterlife beliefs.
In Ancient Greece, life after death was associated with the Underworld and the god Hades, who controlled the process of crossing the river of death (Styx) and opened the gateway to the afterlife (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009). Greeks believed that to cross Styx and to enter the afterlife, the deceased had to pay several coins to the ferryman for this reason, Greeks buried their dead with several coins in their mouths (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009). In many aspects, Greek beliefs about the afterlife go in line with those of Christians, who view the afterlife as the road to either hell or paradise. In Christian cultures, God is the one to decide who deserves to enter paradise (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009).Christian cultures judge their own chances to enter paradise by the actions and decisions made during their earth life.
The link between earth life and the afterlife is a common feature of afterlife beliefs across different cultures. In Buddhism which treats the afterlife as a complex connection of several tiered paradises, with each presenting a more magnificent level of self-consciousness and recognition, the chances to end up in Nirvana largely depend on the level of human virtue and commitment and spirituality during the earth life (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009). In distinction from western cultures, Buddhism does not apply to hell, although it involves some form of temporary hell state, which some of the deceased will have to experience. Yet, Buddhism always leaves a chance for the deceased to escape hell and to enter the higher state of consciousness and, ultimately, Nirvana (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009).

The division of the afterlife into hell and heaven is also characteristic of Hebrew cultural traditions.  It should be noted, that early Hebrew beliefs about the afterlife treated soul as a substance which, after death, reduced to a shade or some insignificant amount of psychic energy and then descended down into Sheol (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009). The latter combined the place for both the good and the bad, and only with time did Hebrews come to divide their beliefs about the afterlife into the two separate domains  that of hell and that of paradise (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009). There is no definite information about what criteria Hebrew cultures use to judge the deceased and to decide whether they deserve to go to heaven, but Hebrew traditions were readily embraced by and mixed with Christian beliefs about the afterlife (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009).
The good-bad afterlife dichotomy is the basic element of afterlife beliefs in other cultures, including the Islamic culture and the culture of Shinto. Islamic societies believe that upon death, individuals are visited by the two angels, which decide whether the dead person should go to hell or to heaven (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009). In Shinto, all people, upon their death, reincarnate to become supernatural beings (kami) based on their virtue, they either become beneficial or destructive. The Japanese believe that kami continue to exist in the world of the living and that they produce significant influence on the lives of people, especially their relatives and descendants (Samovar, Porter  McDaniel, 2009). Certainly, it is difficult and, probably, impossible, to explore afterlife beliefs across all, including small-scale, cultures. Nevertheless, based on the results of this brief observation, certain generalizations and theoretical assumptions can be made.     
Results and conclusions       
First, all cultures recognize the inevitability of death and, depending on their beliefs about the afterlife, engage in thorough preparations to the death event. Second, that all cultures possess their own sets of beliefs about the afterlife reveals their natural striving to rationalize their assumptions about death and what happens to people after they die. Human consciousness cannot access ones own death as an inner experience. In other words, death is an ineluctable personal experience, which remains outside of an individuals self-reflection throughout his or her entire life (Berta, 2010). These beliefs about life after death help individuals, societies, and cultural communities, to address and resolve the sense of ambivalence, which always accompanies the discussion of death. This ambivalence reflects the conflict between human uncertainty about death and the feeling of its ineluctability (Bauman, 1992). Beliefs in the afterlife support individuals and societies in their striving to mediate the effects of death thoughts on their lives. Beliefs and convictions about life after death provide a kind of spiritual relief, and lead people to believe that life after death will not cease but will simply transfer a person into a different dimension.
The results of the current analysis show that most societies treat death as not transition into nothingness but to some other, unknown state (Parkes, Laungani  Young, 1997). To ensure that this transition is smooth and non-problematic, living people must engage in a predetermined set of rituals, in accordance with all cultural norms and expectations (Parkes, Laungani  Young, 1997). Yet, even when cultures apply to different rituals to facilitate human transition to the afterlife, they rarely or never believe that these rituals will guarantee a place in heaven. Societies judge the chances of the dead to enter heaven, based on their virtue and actions.

These judgments are particularly characteristic of Christian and Islamic cultures. In their research, Richardson and Weatherby (1983) assume that the afterlife represents a symbolic sanction relevant to the perception of negative consequences that accompany the violation of traditional cultural behaviors  individuals view church attendance and religious affiliation as the basic predictors of entering heaven in their afterlife. However, cultures evolve, and so do human beliefs about the afterlife. Dickson et al (2005) suggest that cultures with lower productivity infrastructure will be less willing to judge the deceased for the acts in their lives. Thus, the system of beliefs about the afterlife constantly changes and is influenced by a variety of cultural, economic, and social factors.

Despite these differences, the results of the current analysis support a belief that cross-cultural vision of the afterlife relies on the biological inevitability of death and the separation of good and evil. The presence of afterlife beliefs in different cultures is justified by the societies striving to rationalize their assumptions about life after death. Future research must concentrate on the role of fear in afterlife beliefs  researchers lack unanimous agreement as for whether the fear of death can be considered as the determining cultural feature of afterlife beliefs in different cultures. Because the current state of knowledge about life after death is limited to the study of natural and, in most cases, predictable death, the anthropological study of death also must engage into a variety of perspectives, including medicine, violence, and psychology, to create a holistic picture of cross-cultural beliefs about the afterlife.


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