||Philosophers have difficulty in establishing a definition when considering death. If death is the termination of one\'s existence, then one cannot survive death. But many people deny that we do in fact die in this sense, holding that we survive the demise of our bodies. They believe that death is not the termination of one\'s existence, but merely the end of the continuous biological functioning of one\'s body.
There are various theories about how people can survive their death, that is, the demise of their bodies. Those who believe in bodily resurrection seem to believe that we are our bodies and, therefore, cannot exist without them. When one\'s body ceases to function, one ceases to exist. But on the day of judgement, God will resurrect our bodies and we will thereby return to life. We will have diedâ€”our bodies will have ceased to existâ€”but when God resurrects our bodies he will thereby have resurrected us.
Others believe, by contrast, that people are not their bodies, but immaterial souls which can survive the destruction of their bodies. The doctrine of transmigration of the soul seems to be such a view: my immaterial soul is currently intimately (causally) related with this human body, but when it is destroyed Iâ€”my soulâ€”will persist and become intimately (causally) related with some other human or nonhuman animal body. My identity is that I am an incorporeal soul, and when this body ceases to exist I will be re-embodied in another bodyâ€”I will be reincarnated.
Still others hold that my immaterial soul will survive the demise of this body and will not be reincarnated. At death I will become disembodied, I will cease to have a body, and in this state I will remain. A belief in the personal survival of death does not require a belief in immortality. One might believe that one will survive the end of one\'s (current) body, while still expecting to cease to exist altogether at some time after that.
For anthropologists, attitudes to death, and rituals associated with death, are major areas of research. Cultural evolutionists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries devoted much attention to mortuary rituals, ancestor worship and beliefs in an afterlife. These were all seen as a result of â€˜primitiveâ€™ peoples\' need for reassurance in the face of the inevitability of death. Ancestor worship not only secured humans a place in the afterlife, but was also a useful means of bolstering tradition in the here-and-now.
Property and inheritance laws to some extent determine the importance which society attaches to the death of an individual. There is generally less ritual in hunter-gatherer societies as there is less property to be disposed ofâ€”unless the individual\'s death raises questions about handing down authority and leadership. Notions about the individual and his or her place in society or the cosmos are reflected by death rituals. Death rituals vary according to the class and gender of the deceased, or the presumed state of his or her spiritual development. Accordingly, for example in India, the appropriate way of dying and burial differs for a Hindu ascetic and a secular householder.
Following the sociologist Ã‰mile Durkheim, who asserted that funeral rituals strengthen social solidarity, Robert Hertz focused on the way mortuary rites were a means of repairing the fabric of social life damaged by death. The powerful forces manifested after death could be used in the regeneration of social life. Hertz also argued that the emotions of the individual are formed by social context, just as are conceptions of death. Deaths that are somehow anomalous sometimes cannot be dealt with. For example, in the Sudan, a Nuer man who was presumed dead, and for whom mortuary rites had been performed after a long absence, was not reincorporated into village life when he returned to the community, manifestly alive and not dead. â€˜Badâ€™ deaths, or unnatural deaths through accidents or homicides, are often believed to create another class of malevolent spirits, which may come back to create problems for the living.
Mortuary rites reflect the nature of beliefs; for example, if there is a belief in an afterlife, death rituals will elaborate this. In 1905, Hertz published an essay on death rituals in Indonesia and Malagasy which examined the relation between the state of the corpse, the fate of the soul, and the ritual condition of the mourners. In many cultures, if the flesh has not completely decomposed the bones must be scraped clean before undergoing a second burial, symbolizing the final release of the spirit from its mortal remains. As well as re-establishing the cohesiveness of the social group such second burials reincorporate the mourners into full social life. Life values of fertility and sexuality are often associated with death rituals and work to reaffirm the social order. Among the Gimi of New Guinea, women (associated with birth and rebirth) consume dead men\'s flesh out of compassion so as to free their spirit. AJ CL
See also personal identity; rites of passage; self; spiritualism.Further reading R. Bloch and , P. Huntingdon Metcalfe, Celebrations of Death; , M. and , J. Parry, Death and the Regeneration of Life; , T. Penelhulm, Disembodied Existence; , Bernard Williams, Problems of the Self.