«The understanding of death and dying as seen by different religions»


The world's principal religions and spiritual traditions may be classified into a small number of major groups or world religions: the vast majority of religious and spiritual adherents follow one of Christianity (33% of world population), Islam (20%), Hinduism (13%), Chinese folk religion (6%) or Buddhism (5%), more...

[DEATH AND BEREAVEMENT ACROSS CULTURES, Edited by Collin Murray Parkes, Pittu Laungani and Bill Young, 1997. ISBN 0-415-13137-5. pp 10]

The word "religion" derived from the Latin religare which means "to bind" and, traditionally, it is that body of ideas which binds a society together. More recently it has come to have a more specific meaning as the "recognition on the part of man of some higher, unseen power as having control of his destiny, and a being entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship..." (Shorter Oxford Dictionary, 1970). This unseen power is usually referred to as "God" in monotheistic, or "the Gods" in polytheistic societies. 

As such it is distinct from the term "culture" which, in the usage of sociologists and anthropologists, has come to mean the "social heritage of a community" (Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, 1977), that is, the sum total of the possessions, ways of thinking an behavior which tend to be passed down from generation to generation. Thus the term "culture" now includes "religion" although there is a sense in which religious, because they may be shred by people from many groups, can be said to transcend cultures.

Sociologists have written about popular culture, media culture, mass culture, minority culture, ethnic culture, aboriginal culture, black culture, white culture, etc.: the list is almost endless. To make matters more confusing, since we have subgroups to every group we also have "subcultures". For the sake of simplicity we have limited our use of the term in this presentation to the main large ethnic and religious groupings that we are likely to meet in the course of work and life.

Difficulties arise, not only in the multiplicity of cultures and subcultures, but also in the characteristics which are thought to distinguish them and which easily lead to cultural stereotyping. Thus early visitors to other lands commonly picked on one characteristic which, to them, stood out as distinctive and shocking because it seemed so much at variance with their own beliefs; tribes would be branded as "cannibals", "pagans", "devil-work shippers" or "ignorant savages". This implanted in the minds of would-be conquerors a conviction of their own superiority which justified the conquest and subjugation of the "inferior" race.

What constitute a culture? It is suggested that all cultures posses a set of core (primary) features and a set of peripheral (secondary) features: the core features constitute the essential requirements of any culture. The peripheral features, although important, may very from culture to culture.

The primary features of a culture are as follows:

1. A past history (recorded or oral).
2. A dominant, organized religion within which the salient beliefs and activities (rites, rituals, taboos and ceremonies) can be given meaning and legitimacy. These include beliefs and ceremonies about death.
3. A set of core values and traditions to which the people of that society subscribe and which they attempt to perpetuate.
4. Regulated social systems, communication networks, including regulatory norms of personal, familial and social conduct.
5. Artifacts unique to that society, e.g. literature, works of art, paintings, music, dance, drama, religious texts, philosophical texts, etc.

The secondary features of a culture are as follows:

1. I should, to a large measure, have a common language or group of languages.
2. Common physical and geographical boundaries within which people of that particular society live, from which the may venture abroad but to which they will feel drawn to return.
3.  A relatively fixed pattern of housing and other living arrangements.
4. Socially accepted dietary, health and medical practices.
5. A shared moral and legislative system.

Of these various features the most important in normally religion. It is this shared commitment to something more important than the individual and the family which provides both a rationale for society and a st of moral imperatives with out which societies lose a major source of security.

With these thoughts in mind we turn now to a consideration of how the main world cultures have come into being. Since these have been inextricably linked to particular religious faiths it is these that will provide the focus of our discussion.

[DEATH AND BEREAVEMENT ACROSS CULTURES, Edited by Collin Murray Parkes, Pittu Laungani and Bill Young, 1997. ISBN 0-415-13137-5. pp 15]

Most of us tend to think of a religion as a fixed and unchanging set of beliefs, a faith which is exclusive and incompatible with other faiths. 

This view is fallacious. All of the main world religions have changed in their systems of belief over time and under the influence of the various cultures into which they have spread. 

The most pronounced changes in religious faith have occurred at times when the cultures have been undergoing similar pronounced change. These are most likely to occur at times of conquest. 

Although contact with other faiths has often led to conflict, it has also led to modifications and compromises which have allowed people of different religions to get along together and, in many places, to adopt each other's beliefs. 

As a consequence of this, people who subscribe to a particular religion in one part of the world may have very different beliefs and rituals from those of people of the same religion who live in other places. 

Thus many of the beliefs and observances of a Buddhist in Japan resemble the beliefs and observances of a Japanese Shinto more closely than they do those of a Buddhist in Sri Lanka. 

In all of great world religions there is a variety of sects which tend to emphasize different ways of practicing the faith. Divisions tend to grow up between conservative and liberal elements: between those who seek a personal relationship with God and those who prefer to appoint priests as intermediaries; between those who seek intellectual justification for their beliefs and those whose faith comes from their emotions or "heart". 

There are those from whom mysticism and magic are at the root of religion and others who are highly suspicious of these. There are people who give ritual and prayer a central place and others who see them as unimportant. 

As we have seen, the great world religions have evolved in diverse ways according to the particular beliefs of the people of power and influence in each place and time. One of the deepest divisions is between people who tolerate faiths other than their own and those who oppose them. 

The twentieth century has been more social change across the world than any other century and it is hardly surprising that many of the faiths that were formerly relatively static are now changing. 

Democracy, with its emphasis on personal liberty, has encouraged religious tolerance, and increased ability to travel and the mass media of communication have created a "global village" in which we are repeatedly being made aware of the people who live in other cultures than our own. With all our tolerance, and perhaps because of it, we are in danger of losing one of the most important attributes of religion, respect for the sacred. Modern man, with all his cleverness, is in danger of losing that reverence for the awesome spiritual mysteries of the universe which is evident in the worship that is central to most religions.


As we have examined the literature concerning the dialog between science and religion, the single fact that impressed us was that although many things have been said - the discussions often seemed fragmented, partial or diffused. For example, there is a considerable amount of writing about the "differences of science and religion".


It is not uncommon to read about general similarities of and differences between science and religion. After reviewing many of the studies, we can deduce the following matrix which accounts for the various reviews:

1. FOUNDATION Scientific Theological
2. PHILOSOPHY Anthropocentric Theocentric
3. SPIRIT Secular Sacred
4. APPROACH Self-Correcting Dogmatic
5. ATTITUDE Dispassionate Commited


A recent article in a Boston newspaper reported the results of an informal survey of area physicians, psychologists and clergy about their interfacing roles. Findings revealed these diverse impressions:

1. From the Scientific Perspective
It was stated that many pastors were thought to be ill-prepared to deal with anything more than "a nagging spiritual crisis". One psychologist said, "...clergy do not distinguish someone who is suffering from a psychotic depression over and against a simple disappointment".
But the range of views differed even within the disciplines. Psychotherapists evaluated the skills of clergy from: "It's sort of like people who talk to their hairdresser" to "...it is nothing less than the clergy's sworn duty to tinker with the parishioners' emotional ailments". One psychologist humbly stated, "There's tendency among psychiatrists and psychologists to exaggerate in an extreme way the amount of skills the have. They often overrate their effectiveness and underate the effectiveness and intelligence of other professionals".

2. From the Religious Perspective
A clergywoman stated that the non-clinical relationship between minister and parishioner is compatible with the counseling process but can preclude the "I'm nuts" stigma often identified with therapy.
She said, "I can help a lot of people who feel talking to me is not threatening, but the idea of a shrink is devastating". On the other hand, one clergyman pointed out the need for the religious to be clearly differentiated from the therapist as "complications arise because clergy may enter conflicting roles".
Therefore, we see that a dialogue between medicine, psychology and religion often does not occur between these distinct positions. The interface between science and religion seems to have unclear boundaries, to be ill defined and to be emotionally charged- involving territoriality, biases and a variety of ways of thinking about the disciplines. So, is there a way to bring order over the confusion? Can really be a dialogue? [COPING WITH DEATH AND DYING- An Interdisciplinary Approach, Edited by John T. Chirban. University Press of America, 1985. ISBN 0-8191-4985-3, pp 4]