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When we think of death

  • think of how to avoid it or make it serve life (organ transplant)
  • Death is just a word, abstract


African concept okra

  • African reincarnation - death as a "return"
  • Every human possesses an okra, (immaterial part of him given to him by Onyame or God); animals do not possess this (have a sasa) 
  • Human dies, okra leaves the body and returns to onyame (God)
  • “expresses the idea that when a man dies he is not (really) dead… there is something that is eternal and indestructible in man” 



Myths about Death

  • Lizzard: (Africa) - lizzard got there first and told "man" that they were mortal (chameleon was to say they would NOT die): 
  • (Indonesian) - God sent stone and a banana, humans chose banana (parent tree dies after it bears fruit), should have chosen stone (changeless, immortal)
  • altho chose the banana (signified death),  it seems that we would like to have both, human life and eternal life after death.


Death as Irrational to Humans

Death as absurd element of life; stories about death are primal stories, to human beings , death seems irrational, futile and meaningless 

We try to find meaning in death when we look at death; therefore the stories about death are about trying to find meaning in life


Death as Transformation

  • to next world - many religions think this
  • greatest change in our life - matter to spirit
  • symbol of life transformations (death of marriage, of relationship)
  • "Born again Christianity" - death of old self



Ritual death - Hinduism - renounce all (family, possesions, personal history) and considered legally dead, then follow path to liberation


Death as Loss

  • Loss of
    • influence of that person on our life (the ones left behind)
    • "loss of life"
    • relationships with others
  • base alot on attachments so feel our own loss more than other's


Our own death as loss...what?

  • ability to engage in bodily relationships, the relationships we experience with our eyes, ears, with tangible things

  • self which is interconnected with the self of others


Ancestor Veneration

  • live in memory of ancestors, need someone else to tell the story of our death
  • complete someone's life by remembering story of their death


Non-physical causes sickness/death in primal religions

  • soul-loss
  • spirit possession
  • intrusion of a disease spirit
  • spirit attack
  • violation of taboos
  • successful healing means a focus on the “immaterial”, spiritual aspect of the body because physical illness is a symptom of the soul’s ailment (PRIMAL)


Death Rituals (meaning)

  • to reaffirm a continued relationship with the one who dies (funerals affirm continuity)
  • way in which we understand what it means to be a person in life and death
  • cultural constructions - tell us where the person is after death, their status, how community regards physical body, type of transformation upon death
  • to comfort the ones left behind


NDE of Soldier on Battlefield

  • Saw himself from "40 feet overhead"
  • Felt as if in 2 places at once - dead and alive
  • Comes "back" and hears ppl say he isn't dead
  • the crucial aspect is that the individual has returned to the world as a living witness of their own death



Psych. & Biol. Response to NDE

  • Psych: emotional response to shock / trauma of death; fantasy/wish-fulfillment in face of death; mythological archetypes buried in brain that surface
  • Biological: 
    • ​metabolic disturbance
    • endorphins
    • limbic lobe seizure
    • drug overload
    • visual cortex hyperactivity



  • Fear of being buried alive
  • Had "safety coffins" with bells or other ways to "get out"


Death as a Process (transformation)

  • Death is an event: beginning of preparations to dispose of the body

  • Movement from alive to dead is a lot vaguer than distinguishing between something that is already dead and one that is live

  • is death about the "essence of life"? If so, if the essence is gone is the person dead?



Person has 2 aspects

  • Person has 2 basic aspects: the visible material body and the immaterial particularities of that body (ALL CULTURES)
  • Dichotomy between body & soul / body & mind connector b/w all religions we study


Harvard Criteria Irreversible Coma

  1. Unreceptivity and unresponsiveness
  2. No movement or breathing
  3. No reflexes
  4. Flat EEG - no electrical brain activity

Does this ignore Veatch's definition which emphasizes the physical & social processes of life?


Veatch Definition Death

4 types of loss to signify death: Loss of:

  1. Flow of Vital fluids, heartbeat and breathing
  2. Soul from Body
  3. Capacity for Bodily Integration (can't regulate own vital activities - brain death)
  4. Capacity for Social Interaction (no "higher brain functions" (need to define for ethics - life support, transplants)

So focus on loss of physical body functions

Others focus on loss of "personhood" (Descartes: essential "me" - the immaterial soul, thinking being


Mind/Body Problem

  • How can that which is immaterial be connected to that which is material?
  • Corazza: body has no physical boundaries - indefinite entity
  • Wierzbicka: person has an immaterial counterpart which def'n varies among cultures (re interpretation of the "soul")


Yombe (Zambia) definition of birth

  • child becomes a "person" through ritual, not birth - person when socially accepted in group
  • (if die before the ritual not person)
  • womb - house (belongs to community)  / grave - house
  • Naming establishes a bond between person to person and person to animal, which in turn makes it harder to harm that being


Death and the Warao Indians

  • corpse is buried in a dugout canoe (womb)
  • death: work of the dark-shaman - supplies souls to feed the spirits of the dead 
  • only the shamans, master craftsmen, basket-weavers and hammock makers are guaranteed immortal afterlife, rest are food for spirits of underworld


Death and Gurun People

  • mother's family provide white shroud for body (harmony between 2 sides of family)
  • Body cremated, soul in underworld, rescued by Paju shaman, food offered to soul in underworld
  • Soul enters pigeon that visits everyone, eats, says good-bye; pigeon released, soul released from underworld
  • Ghyabre Shaman leads soul to land of ancestors
  • Gurung death rites emphasize death as momen for reconciliation and harmony


Death and the Dogon

  • death of one person = death of community
  • death = tear in social fabric, community  to heal 
  • believe in 8 souls  - some go to God, some become ancestors
  • life (warmth) in contrast to death (cold)
  • dance ritual transforms the spirit into ancestor


Birth/Death Social Constructs

  • some religions do not believe that death is the end therefore birth and death lie on a continuum


Mother Goddess

Symbol for Fertility


Ancient Burials

  • Neandrethal grave: tools in the burial for support, as travel through the spirit world
  • Pollen at burial site - proof that flowers were lain at burials back then?

  • Cro-magnon - enclosed dead in block structure

  • Shaman of Trois Freres: animal ritual

  • Inanna: ancient Sumerian goddess of love, sensuality, fertility, procreation, war

  • Isis: Egyptian Mother-Goddess


Worldview Primal Religions

  1. Spiritualization of surrounding world - elements of external world have power
  2. Belief in all-embracing connections in nature
  3. Humans not superior to other life forms
  4. Cosmos is accessible - shamans, dreamers
  5. Religion - form of social consciousness


Indigenous Worldview 

  1. Duality of Universe - visible (senses) / invisible (spirit power)
  2. Duality of the Person - material (body) / immaterial (soul)
  3. Social Function of Religion
  • Shaman can access the spirit power of invisible world and mediate between both
  • humans not separate from natural world


Soul in Montheistic Religions

  • aspect of person that is metaphysical, entirely beyond physical world
  • unitary, undying essence of a person


Primal View of Souls - 5


  • have many souls
  • souls are mobile / somewhat material
  • shaman can see souls
  • soul leaves body at death 
  • soul can be harmed, get sick
  • soul not necessarily eternal (Guajiro one dies)
  • 2ND death (grave soul to beetle then 3rd death when beetle dies THEN disappear)