By Courtney Applewhite
August 31, 2018
Death and dying are human universals—death rituals, mourning, and grief manifest in cultures and religions throughout the world. As such, they provide a platform for cross-cultural comparison and should remain a central focus in our study of religion.
Too often relegated to strictly psychological or theological approaches, there is now a rising movement in religious studies to offer fresh perspectives on death and dying that draw from other disciplines including anthropology and sociology. The selection of books discussed here follows this trend. Many volumes are centered on theological approaches, but an increasingly large number draw on ethnographic or textual studies. The books we have received on death and dying from 2015 to 2018 are here categorized into overviews; ritual beliefs and practices by geographical area; ritual beliefs and practices by tradition; theories about death; and literature, pop culture, and art.
Overviews of death and dying practices risk falling into the trap of conforming to the “world religion paradigm,” thereby overwriting the nuances of different regions or sects within religious traditions. However, this approach is still common within studies of death and afterlife beliefs and is used to provide a general survey of traditions. Christopher Moreman has been one of the most prominent scholars taking on the task of death and dying overviews and he often relies on this frame. His edited volume, Death, Dying, and Mysticism, co-edited by Thomas Cattoi, takes a multi-disciplinary approach that focuses on what reviewer Lise Vail describes as “the mystical loss of ego mentioned in various religious narratives on dying.”
Moreman’s 2017 The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying provides a summary of the doctrines of death and the afterlife alongside funerary practices from each of the “world religions,” but also attempts to address less widely known religious traditions. Going beyond “post-mortem issues,” reviewer Bradley S. Clough points out that part 4 of the work “is devoted entirely to dying-process matters, with a few of its chapters giving fine attention to the religious concern with ars moriendi and ‘dying the good death.’” It includes clinical and ethical issues, philosophical issues, and death and dying as represented in popular culture.
In one of Moreman’s latest projects, the second edition of Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions, he turns his attention to beliefs and experiences surrounding the after-death state. Similar themes reoccur, including the examination of near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and past-life memories, but this edition, reviewer Angela Scott says, “improves greatly upon the former [edition] by including additional religious traditions such as African and New World spirituality.”
Another helpful overview from Routledge, edited by Candi K. Cann and entitled The Routledge Handbook of Death and the Afterlife, includes work from psychology, sociology, and religious studies that examines constructions of the afterlife in literature, text, ritual, and material culture throughout time. While Moreman’s The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying gives a religion-by-religion overview, Cann’s volume is organized by general themes and punctuated by case studies, which we hope to learn more about in Kevin Whitesides’s upcoming review.
Although much of death and dying scholarship is moving in the way of individual case studies, combining several into a single narrative is also a compelling treatment, as evidenced by the success of Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. A mortician by training, Doughty chronicles accounts of how other cultures care for the dead as a juxtaposition to the depersonalized medical systems of death in the United States. You can volunteer to review this book here.
For the more casual reader, these expansive volumes may feel overwhelming. Douglas Davies offers a more focused review in Death, Ritual and Belief: The Rhetoric of Funerary Rites. I point out in my review of this volume that although Davies provides general overviews of many different traditions, he ties each back to the lens of rhetoric, or “words against death.” Largely an anthropological and sociological examination, an important perspective Davies includes is the ritual aspects of secular death, particularly in the United Kingdom.
In The Body in Religion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Yudit Kornberg Greenberg focuses in on the ultimate fate of the body as a physical object as well as its state in the afterlife. Greenberg draws from many of the major traditions to illustrate practices particularly associated with the body, paying homage to what reviewer Ori Tavor describes as “the ‘somatic turn’” in academic publications.
Ritual Practices and Beliefs by Geographical Area
Overviews and edited volumes generally require collaboration. Solo scholarship more often uses ethnographic, textual, and historical data to illustrate ritual beliefs and practices by physical location. Most of the recent literature we’ve received in this area in the past three years focuses on historical accounts of European death practices. Scholarship about death beliefs in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean are focused more on ethnographic studies and are relatively scarce compared to works on Europe. The current work done on North American beliefs blend interest in both ethnography and history.
North America and Caribbean
In North America, death and dying is often relegated to the realm of theology (which will be addressed later) or psychology and medicine. New volumes discussed here are attempting to understand the history of death and afterlife beliefs and trace them to the present day.
Kathryn Gin Lum, author of Damned Nation: Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction, uses the scholarship of Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney, among works by other prominent ministers and laypeople from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, to paint the United States as “hell-obsessed” between the Revolution and Reconstruction. In contrast to evangelical beliefs about hell and damnation, Lum offers Unitarian, Spiritualist, Native American, and African-American understandings. Reviewer Dana W. Logan argues, “At its strongest points … Damned Nation inquires into hell as a cultural concept that extends beyond theology and asks how hell functioned as a broader concept outside of the traditional boundaries of religion.”
In one of the few recent works on the Caribbean, Zombies: An Anthropological Investigation of the Living Dead, forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier investigates the claims in Haiti that some people can return from the dead. He collects evidence, examines Vodou dolls by X-ray, and visits cemeteries to shed light on this spectacular claim. Much of the Caribbean is rich with ritual practices surrounding death and we can hope that the dearth of recent materials in this region will be addressed in future scholarship. A review of Zombies is forthcoming from Mayumi Kodani.
Returning to a historical perspective and now spreading from North America across the ocean to Europe, Thomas W. Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains grapples with the question of why the dead body matters. His commentary extends back to prehistoric and ancient times, but the bulk of the material comes from archives dating from 1680-2000. The underlying idea is that past and future are connected by the dead and the ever-present process of dying. As reviewer John L. Murphy explains, “Having despaired of extracting the testimonies of those dying, Laqueur asks instead what the living ‘did with and through real dead bodies,’ by analyzing ‘what their acts meant and mean to them.’”
With its long-documented history, Europe offers a wealth of information about death practices in the past and their development as we approach the modern era. In recent scholarship, Nancy Mandeville Caciola provides an examination of the afterlife beliefs of Christian and pagan traditions between 1000 and 1500 throughout Europe in Afterlives: The Return of the Dead in the Middle Ages. She points out that death is used as an opportunity for thinking about self, regeneration, and loss in the Middle Ages. This book has been reviewed by Geneviève Pigeon.
Picking up mid-stream in the chronology of Caciola’s work, Stephen Werronen focuses on the late medieval period in his Religion, Time and Memorial Culture in Late Medieval Ripon: Ripon Minster and Parish, c. 1350-1530. Set in the Yorkshire dales in England, Werronen documents the importance of the commemoration of the deceased in this significant parish. This work is available for review here for those interested in sociology, medieval English history, or saints.
Sondra L. Hausner, author of The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyard: Time, Ritual, and Sexual Commerce in London, and Barbara Graham, author of Death, Materiality and Mediation: An Ethnography of Remembrance in Ireland, both focus on groups in the British Isles in the modern era. In The Spirits of Crossbones Graveyards, Hausner explores the Crossbones memorial ritual for the Winchester Geese—a group of medieval prostitutes who were thought to be buried in a mass grave—through a framework of ritual studies with connections to both historical events and their present-day effects. However, reviewer Ethan Doyle White identifies Hausner’s main thesis as being that “the Crossbones rites are a challenge to present-day capitalism, invoking a human economy rather than a commercial one.” Similarly, Graham’s Death, Materiality and Mediation (currently available for review) connects modern practices to older beliefs and folk religion. She examines the material interplay between the living and the dead in contemporary Irish communities, showcasing the ongoing roles of the dead in these groups.
Adding a sociological perspective, Douglas Davies supplements his earlier-discussed overview, Death, Ritual and Belief, with a specific examination of death rites in 21st-century Britain in Mors Britannica: Life Style and Death Style in Britain Today. He considers longevity as a factor in changing death perspectives and, as in his overview, considers rites in both religious and secular spheres. Mors Britannica is available for review here.
Bridging Europe and India, editors Günter Blamberger and Sudhir Kakar have recently released a volume that explores current images of the afterlife and the presence of the dead in the imaginations of the living in both European and Indian traditions. Imaginations of Death and the Beyond in India and Europe, published in April 2018, draws from literature, arts, audiovisual media, and other cultural artifacts of the two regions to illustrate their differing views on themes such as: visions of the technological immortalization of humanity; fear of Hell and punishment; near-death experiences; and cultural practices of spiritualism, occultism, and suicide. Blamberger and Kakar have compiled a unique volume in that it takes on the comparative task on a more limited scale than the larger overviews. A review is forthcoming from Philippe Bornet.
Returning to a focus on ethnographic studies, two volumes examine the Pacific Islands at large and a focused investigation of the Trobriand Islands, respectively. In Mortuary Dialogues: Death Ritual and the Reproduction of Moral Community in Pacific Modernities, editors David Lipset and Eric K. Silverman have assembled an investigation of both death and mourning practices throughout the Pacific Islands. Their work centers on “mortuary dialogue,” or the different genres of rhetoric through which people restore order following a death in the community. This emphasis on the verbal component is not unlike Douglas Davies’s Death, Ritual and Belief in which he outlines the idea of “words against death.” If you are interested in the themes of rhetoric, Mortuary Dialogues is available for review here.
In Ways of Baloma: Rethinking Magic and Kinship from the Trobriands, Mark S. Mosko upends modern scholarship on the Trobriand culture through an ethnographic study in which he discovers that the realm of the living and the dead are in dynamic interaction in this culture. The dead baloma are agents and magic flows through the agency of those spirits. The work has proved controversial and other scholars of Trobriand culture disagree with some points of his analysis. However, reviewer Jack David Eller believes this is a strength of the work alongside Mosko’s “critical engagement with those previous fieldworkers from Malinowski on.”
Much of the scholarship on death and dying in Asia is focused on specific religious traditions rather than regions, so more examples will be provided in the section below on religious traditions. However, Mihwa Choi offers a more general analysis of China in Death Rituals and Politics in Northern Song China. She describes a funeral and the accompanying death rituals during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127 CE) and how, during this period, the rituals themselves became an arena for political contention beyond their historical purpose of demonstrating filial piety and providing social occasions for the community. These political clashes eventually brought about a period of Confucian revivalism in China. Geoffrey Goble has a review of this work forthcoming.
Despite rich cultural practices regarding death, there is little recent scholarship we have received that focuses on Africa. Casey Golomski’s Funeral Culture: AIDS, Work, and Culture Change in an African Kingdom examines Swaziland and the connections between death and dying and the AIDS epidemic. Because of its attendant widespread disease and death, AIDS caused a drive toward new forms and practices for funerals. This perspective offers a different way to approach changes in ritual practice from those discussed so far, beyond the span of time, political intervention, and increasing secularization. If this novel approach interests you, volunteer to review the book here.
Ritual Practices and Beliefs by Tradition
The bulk of books we have received that treat death and dying within specific religious traditions focus on the Abrahamic religions, but there are several interesting studies of death, dying, and afterlife in non-Abrahamic religious traditions too. In general, the literature on death and dying in non-Abrahamic religions—at least in English, which is the only language we review at Reading Religion—is historical, textual, or ethnographic, while texts about death and dying undertaken from a Jewish, Christian, or Muslim point of view are more frequently theological in approach.
Jacqueline I. Stone focuses in on the sociality of dying within the Buddhist tradition in the late Heian and early Kamakura periods in Japan (which include the 10th century CE to the modern era). Stone argues in Right Thoughts at the Last Moment: Buddhism and Deathbed Practices in Early Medieval Japan that rituals are socially performed, socially interpreted, and socially contextualized. Reviewer Natasha L. Mikles points out that “in making an implicit argument for the importance of studying death practices more generally, Stone artfully connects these very real concerns of early medieval Japanese Buddhists to the ever-present desire in our own society for a ‘good death’—free from pain, suffering, and lack of preparation, despite its own incredible unlikelihood.”
Peter Schwieger’s The Dalai Lama and the Emperor of China: A Political History of the Tibetan Institution of Reincarnation examines the modern history of Tibetan Buddhism’s trülku (reincarnation) tradition from the 17th to 19th centuries. Drawing from archival documents, Schwieger traces more of the political history of Tibetan lineages rather than the history of reincarnation belief itself, but he offers an interesting perspective on the ways in which religion and political life were intertwined in Tibet during this era. Brenton Sullivan authored a review of this work.
Also looking at the intersection of religion and politics, Justin Ritzinger examines the life, thought, and practices of Taixu, a Buddhist monk who lived from 1890 to 1947 in the politically-entwined Chinese Buddhist community. Anarchy in the Pure Land: Reinventing the Cult of Maitreya in Modern Chinese Buddhism describes the 20th-century reinvention of the cult of Maitreya, the future Buddha, as understood by Taixu. Francesca Tarocco has reviewed this work.
In contemporary Cambodia, Buddhist funeral rites interact heavily with local religious practices. In Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, Erik Davis offers a thorough ethnographic description of funeral rites and other Buddhist practices associated with death. Rather than a political connection, Davis connects the performative aspects of Buddhist death ritual to Cambodian history and everyday life. In doing so, he illustrates that there may be less opposition between Buddhism and rural belief systems than previously believed. For those interested in contemporary death rituals or Cambodian history, this book is available for review here.
Offering a different approach to the Buddhist tradition, Venerable Dharma Master Hsin Tao, a highly-reputed contemporary Zen (Chinese Chan) Master and Incarnate Teacher of the Nyingma Kathok tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and Chungmin Maria Tu present The Buddhist Voyage Beyond Death: Living Nirvana. Tao and Tu offer a general examination of Buddhist traditions through recapitulation of the Three Turnings of the Dharma-Wheel with a focus on the Mind-only tradition in relation to Buddhist cosmology, karma, and transmigration. A novel aspect of this work is its effort to incorporate modern scientific sensibilities into the conversation about death and Buddhist practice, using scientific analogies for spiritual concepts. This volume is available for review.
In a comparative project, Francis V. Tiso draws from his Catholic and Tibetan Buddhist backgrounds to examine death and dying in different cultures. Rainbow Body and the Resurrection: Spiritual Attainment, the Dissolution of the Material Body, and the Case of Khenpo A. Chö is based on records of the life, death, and cult of contemporary Tibetan mystic Khenpo Achö and looks for analogies between supernatural signs at the deaths of both Achö and Jesus. Tiso provides a unique perspective, drawing on both Catholic and Buddhist traditions, and finds a way to compare them through the death of a visionary within that tradition. Although not a strictly academic work, reviewer M. Maria Turek points out that “as a bold and deeply personal inquiry into the universally pivotal matters of death and dying, it presents a beautifully crafted discussion which, while revealing that Father Tiso is proficient in diverse religious and cultural traditions, may serve as a departure point for larger conversations.”
Robert Ford Campany’s A Garden of Marvels: Tales of Wonder from Early Medieval China, does not exclusively engage with death, but instead looks at zhiguai 志怪—“tales or records of anomalies”—dating from 220-618 CE in China. However, the most common stories relate to survival in the grave and the return from death. Because of the importance of proper burials and respect for ancestors that continue to persist in China, these tales reflect an important aspect of traditions and tales around death and dying in Chinese culture. A review has been authored by Simona Lazzerini.
However, ancient literature is not the only source for recovering funerary practices and afterlife beliefs from past times. Jeehee Hong’s Theater of the Dead: A Social Turn in Chinese Funerary Art, 1000-1400 examines archeological evidence and historical sources to provide us with a perspective from which to understand a transition in funerary art during this period. The production and placement of tomb images shed light on complex intersections of the visual, mortuary, and everyday worlds of China. Reviewer Lu Zhang explains that “rather than attempting to identify possible prototypes of theatrical images by singling out particular sites in the limited data, [Hong’s] work focuses on explaining the effect of the theatrical image or statue as one part of the whole space of the tomb.”
Although Spiritualism is mentioned in several of the volumes on death and dying in relationship to medium contact, Anne Kalvig’s The Rise of Contemporary Spiritualism: Concepts and Controversies in Talking to the Dead takes on the task of understanding the tradition through the practices of contemporary mediums. Using first-hand material gathered from fairs, mediumistic congresses, seances, and interviews, Kalvig weaves a compelling narrative of death beliefs in modern Spiritualist practices. A review by Ethan Doyle White is forthcoming.
C. D. Elledge, in Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism, 200 BCE-CE 200, demonstrates that the earliest literature within Judaism exhibits a confident hope in resurrection. Using the latest writings of the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as the writings of other Hellenistic Jewish authors, Elledge undertakes a close examination of the progression of resurrection beliefs by blending problematic aspects of resurrection with the textual evidence. You can volunteer to review Resurrection of the Dead in Early Judaism here.
Turning to more recent textual sources, Susan L. Einbinder analyzes Jewish literary responses to the late medieval European plague in poetry, a medical tractate, epitaphs, and a liturgical lament. Although not a direct analysis of death practices, After the Black Death: Plague and Commemoration Among Iberian Jews uncovers these Jewish responses to plague and violence in 14th-century Provence and Iberia. Einbinder argues that the plague did not destroy the survivors’ modes of expression and explanation, which may run counter to modern trauma theory. This volume is available for review here.
Hillel Halkin’s After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition provides an overview of death, mourning, and afterlife from biblical times to today. Using Talmudic perspectives, mystical traditions, and literature alongside personal reflections on death, Halkin shows how Jewish approaches to death have changed over time. This book is also available for review.
Christian theological perspectives on death vary. Some focus on specific time periods or texts while others are more general philosophical treatises. One close examinations of a particular time and place is Christopher Hays’s study of death in 1 Isaiah 5-38 in A Covenant with Death: Death in the Iron Age II and Its Rhetorical Uses in Proto-Isaiah. Using literary and archeological evidence, Hays summarizes death practices in the ancient Near East during the Second Iron Age, using this cultural context to situate Isaiah. Though the text was originally Jewish, Hays examines it from a Christian perspective. Raleigh C. Heth will expand on this in his upcoming review.
Looking later in time, Peter Brown turns to how Christian preachers in the West from the 3rd to 7th centuries promoted prayer, almsgiving, and commemoration at the Eucharist as a way for the living to helps the souls of the dead. Brown’s The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity shows how the theology of redemption through gifts to the poor was wielded by wealthy Christians as they took more elaborate steps to protect their own and their family’s souls in the afterlife. The Ransom of the Soul has been reviewed by Becky Walker.
Scott G. Bruce and Christopher A. Jones, in The Relatio Metrica de Duobus Ducibus: A Twelfth Century Cluniac Poem on Prayer for the Dead, provide a new translation of a Latin poem about the cult of the dead. The poem describes an encounter between two warring dukes and a mysterious army from heaven. The translations of documents that speak particularly to death provide access to primary sources for a larger audience. This book is available to review for those interested in Latin or medieval poetry.
In Translating “Clergie”: Status, Education, and Salvation in Thirteenth-Century Vernacular Texts, Claire M. Waters brings our attention to 13th-century vernacular texts in French verse and prose from England and Europe. Specifically, she examines those that respond to the educational imperative observed in the Fourth Lateran Council’s mandate that individuals are responsible for their own salvation. Waters argues that these conversations about personal responsibility at death reinforced the importance of dialogue between teacher and learner in life and are represented in doctrinal handbooks, miracles of the Virgin Mary, and retellings of the Harrowing of Hell. For those interested in medieval Christianity, this work is available for review here.
Medical science and theology become intertwined in Bradford A. Bouley’s Pious Postmortems: Anatomy, Sanctity, and the Catholic Church in Early Modern Europe. Bouley examines the interplay between religion, medicine, natural philosophy, and politics between 1588 and 1700 in Europe. Reviewer Nancy S. Gutgsell notes that Bouley “suggests that the evidence of medical experts, using anatomical studies in the practice of autopsy, came to play a significant role in the canonization process.” Physical differences discovered after death, such as an enlarged heart, became ways in which saints were confirmed.
Philosophically-oriented texts regarding Christian cosmology are more numerous in the recent literature than the preceding historical accounts. Both Stephen T. Davis and Patricia Beattie Jung engage with a philosophical theology that argues for the bodily resurrection, but with two different aims. Davis’s After We Die: Theology, Philosophy, and the Question of Life after Death, reviewed by Benedikt Paul Göcke, aims to show the overall coherence of the notion of bodily resurrection as a plausible model of the afterlife in a Christian worldview. Jung’s Sex on Earth as It Is in Heaven: A Christian Eschatology of Desire uses the compelling account of Christian hope for bodily resurrection to defend her claim that there will be a glorified experience of sex in the afterlife. She uses biblical and social contexts to examine the interplay between ideas of sex in the afterlife and among those living today. This volume was reviewed by Douglas J. Davies, author of several of the previously-mentioned titles.
Still oriented toward a philosophically-informed account of the afterlife, Jerry L. Walls’s Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things that Matter Most addresses the titular topics of heaven, hell, and purgatory along with those of personal identity, the problem of evil, and morality. Reviewer Lloyd Strickland notes that “Walls concludes that purgatory, when understood as a post-mortem process of character transformation undertaken freely, not only makes more sense than the alternatives (e.g., a zap from God), but is also a doctrine that every Christian theology requires.”
The morality component of Walls’s work resonates with both Michael Banner’s The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology, and the Imagination of the Human and Michael Levering’s Dying and the Virtues. Reviewer Brandon Morgan says that much of The Ethics of Everyday Life “exemplifies Banner’s recovery of a Christian everyday ethics within a narrative of human life—from conception to burial—and shows the true value of interactions between moral theology, christology, and social anthropology.” While Banner includes everyday ethics across the full span of human life, Levering focuses specifically on nine key virtues that we must have to die well, journeying through the stages and challenges of the dying process. Both include examples from the medical field, including hospice and euthanasia. Levering’s Dying and the Virtues (reviewed by Kevin Clarke) is a welcome addition to the death and dying literature within religious studies, as much of the conversation about the dying process is relegated to strictly psychological or theological accounts.
Ephraim Radner reminds the reader how our mortality affects human life in A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life. Radner stylizes mortality as God’s gift and examines how the knowledge that we have a finite amount of time impacts our behavior. Avoiding the scientific narrative about life extension, Radner focuses on the “creatureliness” of humans and our imminent death. This work has been reviewed by Michael Allen.
The afterlife is the primary focus in two recent studies of Islam. Sebastian Günther, Todd Lawson, and Christian Mauder are editors of Roads to Paradise: Eschatology and the Concepts of the Hereafter in Islam, a two-volume set that focuses on the afterlife as a key concept in Islam. Reviewer George Archer goes so far to say that “Roads to Paradise—while not an encyclopedia of Islamic eschatology—is certainly the most comprehensive overview of this topic in existence.” This volume includes experiential sections in which mystics describe seeing the hereafter.
Christian Lange’s Paradise and Hell in Islamic Traditions is based on a selection of Arabic and Persian texts that examines the theological, philosophical, and ritual aspects of the Muslim belief in paradise and hell. Lange examines both the Sunni and Shia traditions. A review by Samantha Pellegrino is forthcoming.
Comparing Abrahamic Theologies
Alan E. Bernstein’s Hell and its Rivals: Death and Retribution among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Early Middle Ages compares beliefs about Hell across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Bernstein examines the afterlife beliefs of each of these groups as they were understood from 400 CE to 800 CE through theology, chronicles, legal charters, edifying tales, and narratives of near-death experiences. Reading Religion reviewer Victor Froese notes Bernstein’s interest “in the logic and the rhetorical devices that guided religious thinkers as they imagined the architecture of hell, and its program of torture.” This work has also been reviewed in JAAR by David Freidenreich.
Mark Finney’s Resurrection, Hell and the Afterlife in Antiquity, Judaism and Early Christianity investigates some of the same territory as Bernstein’s Hell and its Rivals, but includes only Judaism and Christianity since it addresses a time period before the development of Islam. Finney argues that early Greek reflection on the afterlife and immortality prioritized the physical body whereas Jewish texts from the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, and early Christianity understood the afterlife experience as that of the soul alone. The rise of the importance of the body also led to the inclusion of an eternal tortuous afterlife for the wicked. A review by Reed Carlson is forthcoming.
Theories about Death and Afterlife
Many of the issues around death and dying that are discussed in theological discourse—resurrection, preoccupation with death, and medical relationships with death—are also engaged theoretically. In psychological theory, terror management theory (TMT) argues that religious entities and beliefs are methods to assuage death anxiety. Jonathan Jong and Jamin Halberstadt’s Death Anxiety and Religious Belief: An Existential Psychology of Religion draws on psychological and cognitive scientific theory to assess the death-centered theories of religion. Using psychological survey methods, Jong and Halberstadt cast doubt on the idea of chronic death anxiety and therefore call into question TMT and its impact on religious belief. In his review, Thomas B. Ellis concludes that “for good or ill, the authors’ conclusions render problematic thanatocentric theories of religion.”
While anxiety is associated with impending death and the time surrounding death, Peter Berger and Justin Kroesen’s edited volume Ultimate Ambiguities: Investigating Death and Liminality would likely describe that anxiety as a symptom of liminality. A comparative project, the volume investigates these “ultimate ambiguities,” arguing that while they are threatening to social relationships because of the forces of death, these are also periods of creativity and change. This work is one of the most recent examples of engagement with death at a deeply theoretical level. A review is forthcoming from Steven Engler.
A philosophical treatment of afterlife beliefs is offered in Simon Cushing’s edited volume Heaven and Philosophy. The first half of Heaven and Philosophy is dedicated to the question of who and what can survive the death of the body while the second half looks at the consequences of universalism (i.e., all souls go to heaven) vs. conditionalism (i.e., souls only go to heaven if they fulfill certain conditions). A thorough review by Alison C. Jameson is available on Reading Religion.
Another philosophically-oriented study is William Hunt’s God, Probability, and Life After Death: An Argument for Human Resurrection. The book begins by exploring the probability of the existence of God that, once established, Hunt argues leads to the resurrection hypothesis. Hunt concludes that human resurrection is very likely. We look forward to the forthcoming review by Taylor Kerby.
Literature, Pop Culture, and Art
Death has crept into popular culture in the last two decades. Whether through autopsy-focused Instagram accounts or the rise of characters who boast immortality in popular literature, death has become both more visible and less real. However, this situation is not entirely new. In popular culture, death has been examined through, among other media, the lens of stories, shows, and music. Douglas E. Cowan’s America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King (review forthcoming by Melissa L. Smeltzer) examines stories such as Carrie, The Dead Zone, and The Shining—among others—to show how King engages with existential questions. Cowan argues that myths, legends, and other stories have given us alternative ways to address the challenges of existence, and that horror does this most effectively.
In a similar vein, Greg Garrett shows how the afterlife is envisioned in popular TV shows and movies including The Lovely Bones, Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and many more. His volume, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, draws primarily on media from the United States, so the focus is mainly on Jewish and Christian afterlife beliefs, but Garrett does include references to other traditions. He offers a wide-ranging exploration of heaven, hell, and purgatory in American popular culture, arguing that afterlife beliefs can emerge from popular culture as easily as from religious institutions. Reviewer Travis Warren Cooper says that “the book’s forte is its deft ability to situate contemporary artifacts within longer histories of theological development and to trace out intertextual allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy and other influential afterlife narratives.”
Just as our afterlife beliefs can be impacted by literary and movie culture, Christopher Partridge argues that popular music has also responded to our awareness of the inevitability of death and the anxiety it can evoke. In Mortality and Music: Popular Music and the Awareness of Death, Partridge takes on the topics of bereavement, depression, suicide, violence, and gore and how these manifest in music and in fans’ responses to the deaths of musicians. He argues that there is social and cultural significance to popular music’s treatment of mortality. If you are interested in volunteering to review this book, click here.
As many scholars of popular culture point out, afterlife beliefs and death practices can emerge from places that are not always religious institutions. In these cases, place becomes just as, if not more, important than religious affiliation. That said, much of the Western scholarship on death and dying remains focused on theological approaches specific to individual religious traditions.
Although briefly mentioned in the volumes on popular culture and in some of the overviews on death and dying, there is a dearth of scholarship that examines non-traditional or secular beliefs and practices surrounding death and afterlife belief. As we move forward in the field, an important development will be additional research that addresses how humanists, agnostics, atheists, and “nones” navigate death and dying as these groups continue to grow. While psychology can discuss how to grieve, it still falls in the realm of religious studies to understand how these undefined groups understand death and afterlife.