Every culture experiences death. What happens after is open for interpretation.
Just as we once threw rocks at the moon, our thoughts on the afterlife reflect our fear of being rendered non-existent. According to Emile Durkheim in the “Elementary Forms of the Religious Life”, because the human mind can dream and make mental pictures of the dead, early humans determined that this meant the person had not died but instead was transformed into another form. The belief in life after death is universal in all human cultures.
Let’s take a look at 5 religions and their individual interpretation of the afterlife.
A Scientologist believes that humans are thetans or immortal spiritual beings. Thetans have several lives and when they exit one life they simply transition to a new life. In a sense, there is no death, just transition. The body is simply a vessel for the soul.
A Buddhist believes in the cycle of rebirth based on karma. This cycle of birth, death, rebirth continues until the individual reaches Nirvana. Nirvana is not to be confused with heaven, it is simply an enlightenment. Freeing yourself from the things that bind you such as; jealousy, hate, desire or ignorance. This perfect peace is reached only when the individual travels the Eightfold path: Right Understanding, Right Intent, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. This isn’t so much a linear path as a manner of living. When life is lived right it is balanced and ethical. Think of the 10 Commandments without the ruler to the knuckles.
A Christian believes in the concept of sin. Humans are separated from God by sin. Jesus died so that sin could be forgiven and humans can be reunited with God. Christians believe the soul is an immortal entity that lives within our body. If you live a life without sin and believe in Christ you will find eternal life in heaven after the physical death of your body. God also granted man free will and if he chooses to reject God, then he is banished to hell for an eternity of pain and suffering.
A Maori believes the spirit leaves the body and passes to the spirit world at death. The family of the deceased meet at the traditional meeting place for the living called the marae. There they summon the spirits of the departed to come and help transition the new spirit to the spirit world. The Maori also believe that the spirits and ghosts of their ancestors return to watch over the living.
A Muslim believes that death is the separation of the body from the soul. The soul then transitions to the afterlife. God has created this world as a test and there is only one opportunity to live a just life. Death is not to be feared and is merely a transition from the material world to the unseen world. Similar to Christianity God has granted life and upon death he will resurrect and judge the righteousness of the individual and determine their eternal life of paradise or hell.
Cultures from all corners of the world strive to provide dignity, pageantry, and ultimately, meaning to an inevitable often ugly part of life, death. We make art, music and create beautiful stories all with the intent to make sense of what could possibly be simply the end. At least we all can rest at night knowing eventually the truth will reveal itself to us all.