As man’s understanding of death has evolved, so too has his relationship with it. It is the only certainty in life, yet it remains the ultimate mystery. Visited only by few who have returned to tell the tale, the rest of us seek religion, ceremony, meditation, or some other lens through which to understand and — possibly — uncover what lies on the other side. Even our ancient limbic systems obsess about death all day long, constantly scanning for signs of danger nearby.
We are built to assess and avoid danger at all costs in order to stay alive, but one must wonder, when it comes to the human condition and free will, just how free from the fear of death could any of us ever really be?
The fear of death certainly seems to be the common denominator amongst most people in this country – or at least this is what society has programmed us to believe. The saying “over the hill” suggests that once we reach a certain age, the remainder of our time on Earth is headed towards a downward journey. There is an abundance of products designed to mask or slow down the aging (i.e. dying) process, and one must strive for longevity daily, working hard to prevent death for as long as possible. When taking into account our modern day obsession and idolization of youth, one begins to reflect on cultures long gone, and their beliefs and relationships with death themselves.
Neanderthals and later species of primitive mankind prayed to and worshipped multiple gods and nature. It was believed that everything that existed had a spirit, be it a rock, animal, or plant.
There was a dependency on the land to provide everything, and so there was both a deep respect and connection to it.
One could argue that in a time before modern technology and science, primitive man had a “limited” understanding of the world in which they lived. Living in pre-agricultural times meant that populations of people were moving often and fighting for territory as well as resources. Perhaps that left very little time to develop culturally in the ways in which we now measure society, specifically, through advancements in technology, science, philosophy, arts, and so forth.
Interestingly enough, despite the judgment that they were not advanced in ways we value today, they did give great thought to death and what lies beyond. Neanderthals are considered the earliest species of human to bury their dead (archeologists have uncovered graves as old as 50,000 years). So, while we may not know their exact feelings about death, we do know that they cared about their dead enough to bury them. The sacred ceremony of burial signified their intention or hope of preserving the body and spirit as they passed into the unknown — which explains why burial is a death ceremony that has transcended centuries as mankind has evolved.
A huge shift in the evolution of the collective consciousness of early mankind was the invention of agriculture. For the first time, it gave people the ability to settle in one area for long periods of time. Staying in one place offered more time to contemplate, experiment, and advance. As the early societies gave way to developments in culture, science, math, and philosophy, so too came advancements in man’s understanding of gods, spirits, the universe, and death.
This eventually brought changes to death ceremonies. Take, for instance, the ancient Egyptians, a very advanced and developed culture of people with a well documented and researched history. Their understandings and beliefs about death included the existence of an afterlife. This was a revolutionary concept that suggested death was not an ending to the human spirit’s experience. Rather, the spirit lived on and crossed into another realm to exist for all of eternity. They believed in this so strongly that people were buried with their most prized possessions to ensure that they took them with them into the afterlife. They also went through great lengths to prepare the body for passing into the afterlife known as mummification.
Now that there was preparation before the actual burial ceremony, burials were becoming much more ritualistic and ceremonial. Although we no longer mummify people, embalming is still practiced and morticians are hired to dress up corpses prior to burial. While the how has certainly changed, the tradition of preparing the body for death, after death, has remained.
What could arguably be considered the biggest shift in not only the ritual of burial (and the preparation that precedes the event), was the introduction of the Judeo-Christian religions. Suddenly, people went from worshiping many gods, to only worshipping one god. The afterlife was now split into a heaven and a hell. The dichotomy of good and evil came into existence, along with dogma or religious rules. These rules governed how we were to behave on earth to ensure our passage into heaven once we died.
Death came with the promise of either eternal damnation or salvation and, if you happened to be a Catholic at that time, a price tag.
The introduction of sin led way to guilt and deep societal programming that, as sinners, we needed to depend on religious figures/leaders for guidance. That guidance continued even into death, as people relinquished control of their dead and allowed these same institutions to handle their burials. Whether through a priest, rabbi, or some other religious institutional leader, the preparation of the body for death included a blessing during what we now call a funeral service. Since the deceased was a member of that religious institution, after the funeral service they could then be buried on church land. Of course, all of these services cost money, which put a tremendous amount of power into the hands of religious institutions. Money and control meant power, which was something governments would later recognize.
In the US today, regulations regarding burials and funeral services vary by state. Some states ban families from burying their loved ones on their own property while other more lenient states have laws that allow home burials as long as a funeral director is hired to oversee certain aspects of the ceremony and you are granted a permit (which can be difficult to obtain). With all that in mind, according to Lincoln Heritage Funeral Advantage, the average cost of a funeral ranges from $7,000-$10,000. High costs of funeral services working in tandem with strict laws, almost seem to suggest that certain states recognized just how profitable death can be and made it a very strong point to turn it into a business. What once was sacred and deeply spiritual is now a regulated and state run operation.
So many rituals these days are being lost. It inevitably makes one wonder what else is being lost in the hustle and bustle of modern day life.
We pride ourselves on how much we’ve advanced, yet collectively, as a people, we have never been more disconnected from ourselves, the planet, and whatever force it is that makes all of existence possible.
In so many ways, man’s relationship with death has not and will not ever change. We all, on some level, fear dying and grapple to understand how to deal with it while we are still living. Maybe the constant wondering is why ceremonies like Ayahuasca have blossomed in popularity. Perhaps it is a way to break through the fear so deeply tied into death these days and to really understand it better. Ultimately, we all want answers and we all want to know what lies on the other end of the rope.
It is incredible that we live, witness, and experience death. We mourn for those we lose and, whether it is in the backyard of our house or a church, we bury them with some belief of where they are going (or not going), and wondering if we, too, will follow them there (or nowhere).
Julia Piantini is a freelance writer living in Miami, Florida. For a complete list of her professional and personal writings visit her on her website, theserverandthesage.com. You can also find her on Instagram at @julia_piantini.