Death: A Common Theme Across All Religions
Tuesday August 30 is National Grief Awareness Day, an occasion for people to reflect upon and process major losses in their lives, including the deaths of loved ones.
There is virtually nothing more universal than death: we all are born, and we all must die. Because it is such a universal phenomenon, it is no surprise that all religions take death very seriously. Most faiths approach death well beyond unconvincing consolations. Rather, the great prophets and scriptures urge us to confront death head-on, to embrace it in all its reality and mystery — without trying to ignore it, without trying to explain it away, it can be the very thing that gives our life meaning. In fact, they nudge us to accept our own mortality with grace and see, objectively, that death is not inferior to life — that they are two sides of the same coin which should be embraced equally.
One positive way to see death is as the ultimate equalizer that strips us of any artificial divisions and shows us we are all human, all subject to the same fears, instincts, desires, and needs, and all subject to the same basic terms and conditions of life on earth. Because we are all equal in death, we are all deserving of compassion in life, all the more so if you see the interconnectedness of all life. Given this interconnectedness, death is not really the state of final extinction we feel it to be, since objectively we do live on in some ways: the physical matter of our bodies will morph into new forms and nourish new life, memories of our lives will endure in other people’s minds, and it is possible that our souls persist forever.
If you follow the basic principle in Physics, that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, the atomic and subatomic particles that constitute our individual bodies existed long before we were born and will exist long after we die. We do not know if our minds or souls survive death, but we do know that our physical bodies are recycled and transformed rather than blotted out of existence. It is hardly surprising that all faiths practice either burying or burning the dead so that it literally goes back into the earth.
Hindus and Buddhists thus believe that life and death are not linear, they are cyclical; the afterlife is marked by reincarnation, though not always in human form, until the end of that cycle — known as moksha or liberation.
Death is one of the most important and most difficult topics for religions to handle, and indeed there are those who argue that the human fear of death is what gave birth to religion in the first place. Nothing can make death go away, but the wisdom from religious traditions can indeed make death feel more natural and meaningful in the overall scheme of how our individual selves fit into the universe.
“That is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies. It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go — let it die away — go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow — and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time.”
— C.S. Lewis, writer and Christian theologian
“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
— The New Testament (Romans 8:13), Christian text
“Exalted is He who holds all control in His hands; who has power over all things; who created death and life to test you [people] and reveal which of you does best.”
— The Qur’an (67:1–2), Muslim text
“For dust you are and to dust you will return.”
— The Hebrew Bible (Genesis 3:19), Jewish text
“Through his ignorance, man fears death; but the death he shrinks from is imaginary and absolutely unreal; it is only human imagination.”
— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“One believes he is the slayer, another believes he is the slain. Both are ignorant; there is neither slayer nor slain. You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies.”
— The Bhagavad Gita, Hindu text
“O mighty Arjuna, even if you believe the Self to be subject to birth and death, you should not grieve. Death is inevitable for the living; birth is inevitable for the dead. Since these are unavoidable, you should not sorrow.”
— Bhagavad Gita, Hindu text
“For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law. People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.”
— The Buddha
“The dead provide resources for disrupting boundaries, not only through their otherworldly existence, but also by calling into question nationalistic, mythical, and heroic narratives.”
— Yuki Miyamoto, scholar of religion
“Many people sweat and toil and feel satisfied that they have accomplished many things. However, in the end we are not all that different from this polished piece of bone. In a hundred years, everyone we know will be just a pile of bones. What is there to gain in life, and what is there to lose in death?”
— Lieh-tzu, Daoist text
“Chi-lu asked how the spirits of the dead and the gods should be served.
The Master said, ‘You are not able even to serve man. How can you serve the spirits?’
‘May I ask about death?’
‘You do not understand even life. How can you understand death?’”
— The Analects (11:12), Confucian text
Modern Philosophy and Theology
“Knowledge is not going to solve our problems. You may know, for example, that there is reincarnation, that there is a continuity after death. You may know, I don’t say you do; or you may be convinced of it. But that does not solve the problem. Death cannot be shelved by your theory, or by information, or by conviction. It is much more mysterious, much deeper, much more creative than that.”
— Jiddu Krishnamurti, philosopher and speaker