Religious concepts and practices in relation to death and dying. It would be hard to imagine a religion truly indifferent to death, the end of an individual human life as we knew it in this world. That is because religion tries to look at life from the largest possible perspective, in the light of that which is ultimate. It is death that forces people to look at their own lives in that way. Knowing that one has only so much time in this world means one must make choices and must choose the values on which to base those choices. Knowing that many religions say there is more to life than just the present short span on Earth, one wants to know what the rest of it is and how it relates to here and now.
In regard to the event of death, religion tends to provide two things. First, it usually teaches about what happens after death, often including in that teaching accounts of an after-death judgment or rebirth, which will reﬂ ect on the choices one has made in life. Second, religions surround the experience of death itself with rites and attitudes designating it as a great experience of transition. The deathpractices of various religions say much about their deepest values.
Devout Hindus, for example, want to die on the banks of the sacred river, the GANGES, particularly in the holy city of BANARAS. If that is not possible, they wish at least for their remains to be brought there to be cremated, and the ashes thrown into the sacred river. The funeral pyre should ideally be lit by the deceased’s eldest son. These practices teach us several things: that death is a time for returning to one’s spiritual roots and the main symbols of one’s FAITH; that the physical body is not important after death and can be reverently returned to the elements from which it came: ﬁ re, water, earth, and air; that death is a time of transition in this world too, from father to son, when the social order rent by death must be symbolically restored.
The same themes of individual transition, signiﬁ cant dispersal of the remains, and family and community healing occur in most traditions, though the particulars may vary greatly. In TIBETAN RELIGION the words of the BARDO THODOL, or “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” may be whispered in the ear of the dying person as a kind of guide telling what will be encountered—the Clear Light, the BUDDHAS of the MANDALA—and how to respond to them in order to gain liberation or a good rebirth. The physical remains may be just cut up and left in a ﬁ eld for carnivorous birds to consume to show their unimportance. But memorial services to help the deceased through the transition and bring the family together continue afterward.
In JUDAISM, the dominant theme is the importance of each individual to the community and the preciousness of each human life. When death approaches, the dying person might recite a PRAYER
confessing SINS and asking GOD for forgiveness and a place in his realm after death—the individual transition. After death, a group of volunteers from the community might care for the body, watching over it, washing it, dressing it for burial. Immediate relatives observe deep mourning until seven days after the funeral, traditionally staying at one place such as the home of the deceased during this time. A meal is given them by others in the Jewish community after the return from the cemetery. All this clearly helps with working through grief and reestablishing family and society bonds after the loss.
In ISLAM, death is also often preceded by an afﬁ rmation of faith. After death, the body is washed, shrouded, and buried facing MECCA in imitation of the posture of prayer—the symbolic reafﬁ rmation of religious roots. Funeral and memorial services follow, centering on recitations of parts of the QUR’AN while the family receives condolences—afﬁ rmation of faith and reafﬁ rmation of family and community ties.
Christian practices vary among traditions but repeat the same themes. Prayer is properly said with the dying person. In Catholic traditions these include confession of sins, absolution or forgiveness of them pronounced by a priest, ﬁ nal holy communion, and holy unction or anointing with oil—the “last rites.” These mark the individual transition and preparation for judgment after death. On this side the family gathers for the funeral, sometimes added to by a “wake” or friends sitting up with the body in the home, and a meal given the mourning family by relatives or the church community. The body is returned to the earth by burial, or nowadays often cremated. Death is dealt with in more intimate and personal ways in religious writings.
Some speak of a “good death” as something to prepare for during all of one’s life. Sometimes it is seen as a time to be particularly close to the holy ﬁ gures of one’s faith, the SAINTS and ANGELS and others. Popular religious art may show a deathbed surrounded by angels, and the “Hail Mary” of Catholic piety asks MARY, the Mother of God, as though she were our mother too, to “pray for us now and at the hour of our death.” Death is a precarious time, and yet devils and demons Personalized sources of EVIL. The two words mean about the same thing, though demons may be subordinate to a principal devil, or to SATAN, the chief of the forces of evil in Western religion. Most traditional religions have given a place to individual powers that work wickedness in the world, and usually are related to a principle of cosmic evil. These entities may be called demons or devils. For simple believers they may help explain many unfortunate things: sickness, madness, war, disasters. They may even have a positive role as an agent of the divine to punish the wicked.
The more sophisticated may see demons as symbolic of important truths of FAITH: that evil exists despite a good GOD or universe, that it afﬂ icts and can even possess humans yet also comes from outside them, and ﬁ nally that evil is a force of cosmic dimensions—perhaps part of a “war in HEAVEN” of God and his ANGELS against Satan and his demons—and so the defeat of evil requires divine action on a large scale. At the same time, the actual history and meaning of demons in various religions says much about them. Sometimes the gods of one era or religion are turned into the demons of another that supersedes it.
In ancient HINDUISM, for example, the asuras, demonic deities, were originally good gods but became malevolent beings to the next race of gods, gods like INDRA and VISHNU. The asuras are in constant conﬂ ict with those gods, but the latter always outwit them in the end. Another class of demons are the raksasas, like Ravana in the great EPIC, the Ramayana; they delight in causing misery to human beings.
Many of these Hindu entities were borrowed by BUDDHISM. The realm of the asuras is one of the six places of rebirth, for those overly dominated by anger, violence, and stupidity; those condemned to the worst of those six places, the HELLS, are tormented by raksasas-like demons. But the most important Buddhist demon is M ARA, who tempted the BUDDHA on the night of his enlightenment.
Signiﬁ cantly, Mara is not so much consumed by evil will as blinded by ignorance, unable to see that the Buddha’s enlightenment could be of beneﬁ t to him too, though the Buddha is “teacher of gods and men” alike. For in Buddhism as in Hinduism the ultimate source of evil is not in the will but in ignorance of the true nature of reality.
The demons in Western religion, like the Western Satan, are beings in rebellion against God out of evil will, though even here ambiguities may occur. An early example is Satan in the Hebrew scriptures’ book of JOB. Here Satan appears as an adversary to God in the sense of a prosecutor whose function is to present an opposing point of view to the Lord, in this case that Job should be unjustly afﬂ icted to test him. Other demonic ﬁ gures, probably inﬂ uenced by Babylonian examples, like Leviathan and Rahab representing chaos, Lilith the demoness of night, and Azazel the wilderness, also appear but only on the margins of the divine story.
However, by the sixth century B.C.E. and probably under the inﬂ uence of Z OROASTRIANISM from Persia, JUDAISM became much more prone to see the world in terms of an eternal cosmic war between two opposing forces of good and evil, led by two personal commanders, God and Satan.
Zoroastrianism believed the universe was a battleground between the high god Ahura Mazda and the hosts of darkness under Angra Manyu or Ahriman. Hellenistic Judaism likewise saw Satan as the adversary of God from the beginning and the world infested by demons under his rule. This is the world view carried over into the NEW TESTAMENT and CHRISTIANITY. In mainstream rabbinical Judaism after the Diaspora of the Jews throughout the world, belief in Satan and demons became less of a central force and today has relatively little importance, although it lives on in Jewish folklore about Lilith, about magicians who had dealings with demons, about dibbuks or evil spirits, and about golems or artiﬁ cial humans created by sorcery.
Christianity in its traditional form perceived Satan as a fallen angel in age-long rebellion against God, who corrupted ADAM and EVE in the Garden of Eden and thus brought SIN to the world, and who continues to twist toward himself whom he can out of his hatred for the good. Cast down from heaven, Satan and his minions landed in the center of the Earth. There they not only plot their war against God waged through tempting humans on the world’s surface, but also receive the souls of those condemned to eternal torture and gleefully impose that punishment. This story is familiar to readers of Dante and Milton. In it evil in the world can be attributed both to perverse human will and human entanglement in the cosmic rebellion of Satan and his angels. The height of Christian demonism was the 15th to 17th centuries, the period of the notorious witch-persecutions and of related elaborate beliefs in the powers of demons, their pacts with humans, their signs and methods of operating. But the horrible injustice and cruelty to which such beliefs could lead produced a reaction, and they went into decline with the 18th century and the “Age of Reason.”
Since then, liberal theologians and psychologists have taken demons as allegorical personiﬁ cations of the evil within the human consciousness. In conservative Christian circles belief in the Devil and his demons often remains strong; much that is bad is attributed to them, and there are RITUALS and services for exorcism or the driving of demons out of persons and places.
In ISLAM, the opponent of God is Iblis or Shaitan, who ﬁ rst disobeyed God by refusing to bow before his greatest creation, human beings. While not always totally evil, he and his jinns (genies; spirits) and shaitans (demons) are ill-disposed toward humans and keep trying to lead them astray. Demon-doctrine is not a central feature of Islamic thought, but acknowledgment of the reality of angels and demons is required of the orthodox, and there is a large store of popular belief and folklore about the jinns and shaitans.
Though not as strong as it once was, belief in devils and demons remains alive in the modern world. Some have contended that the horrors of the 20th century, such as the demonic Nazi regime, show that it is not outdated to speculate about the presence of such malevolent forces. It is as though some intelligent energy of more than merely human wickedness possessed a brief hold on an entire nation at that time, and has shown its hand in other places from Cambodia to Bosnia as well. However that may be, devils and demons live on as parts of many religious worldviews.