The Philosophy of Death Reader

Cross-Cultural Readings on Immortality and the Afterlife

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Markar Melkonian
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , February
     440 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Textbooks are notoriously difficult to find and assemble for our discipline of religious studies. That said, in The Philosophy of Death Reader Markar Melkonian has crafted a detailed volume for an undergraduate course—though (as even the title reveals) it seems best suited for one with a narrow, philosophically based focus. The pedagogic structure is a bit heavy handed but appreciated. The most important topics and definitions are italicized and the sections clearly demarcated. The utility of the book is further demonstrated in the sections marked “For Discussion or Essays” and “Further Readings on.” However, with such questions as “Do you agree?” and instructions like “Compare and contrast the two views,” an academic reader would assume this volume belongs in an introductory-level course. For those interested in assigning this collection for a general course on the religious approaches to death, the trouble then stems from the book’s overly specific line of interest.

For most of the readings selected, the key issue is the soul—more specifically, how it operates (xii) rather than, say, a description of its location, the artistic other-worlds that often accompany death, eschatological expectations, and so forth. Consider Melkonian’s inclusion and use of the Nachiketas story in the Katha Upanishad (112-129). The mytheme of death personified is completely ignored as is the history of heavenly ascension via Hindu fire rituals. But these limitations are clearly known to the author.

The book seems to be marketed as a philosophy textbook. As Melkonian explains in his preface: “For one thing, it is not a book of applied ethics; in these pages you will not find out about the rightness or wrongness of suicide, abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, killing in war, or killing nonhuman animals for food. Nor is this book concerned much about the strange and wondrous things that people have believed about death: it does not focus on anthropological, sociological, or psychological topics relating to death, and it does not delve into the funerary rites of cultures in different times and climes, nor attitudes and institutions of dying, bereavement, mourning, and acceptance” (ix).

Presumably, the issues and approaches listed above are appropriate for a general introduction on death and dying. Which type of religious studies course would then benefit from using this specialized volume? Likely an upper-division undergraduate course on this exact topic (the immortality of dis/embodied souls) and/or courses on the mind (as conceptions of self and personhood are most at stake). I imagine that most lower-division religious studies courses on death and the afterlife include methodologies like textual criticism and exegesis, ethnographic case studies and thick descriptions, and discourse analysis and historiography. This volume then appears to belong within the subfield of philosophy of religion—a poorly disguised form of theology. Melkonian marches through various readings from Vedanta, Buddhist doctrine, Christian apologetics, and so forth just to reach recent analytic philosophy. Had he marched a bit further (perhaps laterally), another series of culturally significant discussions could have been included.

Miguel de Unamuno’s “Hunger for Immortality” (257-272) from 1913 is a truly great entry within this collection – as is Lars Bergström’s “Death and Eternal Recurrence” (311-335) from 2013 (though for the topic of reincarnation). But Unamuno’s discussion of this hunger for immortality (which in a way is a hunger for godhood) primes the reader to consider contemporary examples that are absent within Melkonian’s selection. Though one might expect such religious aspirations to cease in the modern era, the human quest for immortality has recently been revitalized due, in large part, to a popular movement of technological messianism, whereby (1) technology emerges as a “savior” of human society, and (2) scientific advancement captures the religious imaginations of the West (and, to a lesser extent, the East) and inspires generations of “science junkies” to marvel at what the future has in store for humanity. Note that this sense of immortality does not denote the eternal (postmortem) existence of the soul—Melkonian’s chief concern—nor the immortality achieved by the union of the microcosm (human body) with the macrocosm (living universe), which lies beyond the scope of Melkonian’s volume altogether.

The quest for immortality has often involved the longevity of the corporeal: restoration of youth, postponing clinical death, prolonging our state of consciousness, and so on. Within the history of religions, we read of Gilgamesh’s journey to Dilmun in search for immortality, which is found in the form of a root / tree of life (344, 415); Juan Ponce de Leon’s sensationalized expedition to “La Florida” for the fabled Fountain of Youth; and Qin Shi Huang’s expeditions to Mount Penglai (“The Mount of the Immortals”) in search for the Elixir of Life.

Contemporary cases then include the Alcor Life Extension Foundation (f. 1972, based in Arizona), the Cryonics Institute (f. 1976, based in Michigan), the Future of Life Institute (f. 2005, based in Oxford, England), and the Future of Humanity Institute (f. 2014, based in Massachusetts). The former two organizations are dedicated to the advancement of “cryopreservation” (the freezing of clinically dead specimens in the hope of being later saved by a technologically superior human society) while the latter institutions work towards the prospect of “mind-uploading” (the creation of a digital consciousness, no longer being chained to the human body). KrioRus (f. 2005, based in Moscow, Russia) is then the first company outside the U.S. to offer cryopreservation services and recently partnered with the Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute to cryopreserve the first clinically dead body in China in 2017.

In sum, Melkonian’s specialized collection is primarily concerned with philosophical examinations of death and afterlife but with glaring omissions. I was most surprised by the volume’s virtual absence of Martin Heidegger (399n25, 415), though Melkonian does footnote a Heideggerian sentiment shared by Ludwig Wittgenstein (“Death is not an event in life. Death is not lived through,” 13n22). Robert Ettinger (founder of the Cryonics Institute) and his influential 1962 manifesto The Prospect of Immortality are also barely mentioned. This recent movement is given only a few lines within Beverley Clack’s “Death, Failure, and Neoliberal Ideology” (391-413, esp. 401n37) from 2016. This is a missed opportunity as the General Introduction discusses contemporary science-based conceptions of life, biological death, and brain death (1)—all relevant to these recent aspirations of extending the duration of the self. Melkonian is also rash to dismiss the vast literature surrounding near-death experiences (13n23) as it would further complicate the issues of death and sentience at the heart of this philosophical exploration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Chavez is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Date of Review: 
June 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Markar Melkonian is Lecturer in Philosophy at California State University Northridge.


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