Introduction

Introduction, in Deity & Death, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), xiii–xx.

Introduction

Death is universally regarded as the supreme crisis of life. Yet it may be the most sacred moment of human experience. This paradox suggests another—an increasing concern for death and dying coupled with a general predisposition to avoid talking about them. It is because of this ambivalence—our concern but our reluctance to talk—that these searching and revealing papers on deity and death take on so much significance.

People differ markedly in how they deal with the shock of death. Death has a significance that may be social, political, economic, religious, or deeply personal. Usually our response to death is a reflection of our view of life, including not only the precious life within each of us as individuals, but also of the marvelous and sometimes mysterious life within the universe as a whole. Thus our conception of death is a reliable indicator of how we relate to deity and the divine. Deity and death are two themes of single concern. And as such, they are common denominators in the otherwise diverse studies of comparative religion which comprise this book.

We begin with an intriguing analysis of Korean, Mormon-American and Jewish customs surrounding death, prepared by Paul Dredge, an anthropologist whose findings include original research carried out in the countryside of South Korea. Dredge provides a number of contrasting variations: for in Korea the approach to death is not primarily theological—in which God is the overruling concern—it is social and humanistic in tone. Korean funeral customs are best understood in terms of social disruption. Ceremonial and symbolic efforts are intended to mend breaches in the structure of society caused by death.

In Korea the interval between death and burial is of symbolic importance. It is assumed that the longer the time elapsed, the more socially prominent are the deceased and his family. Three days is normal. Jewish practice, on the other hand, is to bury the deceased within a twenty-four-hour period, and the interval between death and burial is of no symbolic importance. Muslims, Copts, Koreans, Jews and American Mormons all prefer burial to cremation. Among Koreans, as among so many others, the use of professional mourners is customary. But the overall funerary tone in Korea is different from the dark and somber tones of the Middle East. In Korea the bier is profusely and brightly decorated. The funeral procession from the home to the gravesite includes dancers, singers, and musicians, who have sometimes been drinking and who seem to enjoy their work. Whenever possible the funeral is marked by trappings of prosperity, which are intended to enhance the social standing of the deceased and his surviving relatives.

In times of death, American Mormons are only slightly more involved in ceremony than their non-Mormon neighbors. And they are far less involved than Koreans and Chinese. Yet rituals are an important social cement that serves the function of binding generations and families together and, as Dredge points out, Mormon temple rites fill in any deficiencies of the public funeral rites. Ceremonies in the temples often focus upon the dead; temple ceremonies in which the faithful may participate on a regular basis throughout their adult life allow a person in mourning to be reassured in ways that other Americans are not. Temple ceremonies preserve an awareness of the closeness of the living and the dead. For those trying to cope with loss through death, Mormon temples provide distinct reassurances which give spiritual and social support. They strongly reinforce faith in God, faith in the sanctity and continuity of individual life, and faith in the eternal character of the family.

In his fascinating discussion of beliefs and practices concerning death and dying among the Muslims and Copts of Egypt, Sami Hanna effectively illustrates ways in which these directly relate to attitudes toward deity and the divine. Death in the Middle East is an awesome ordeal. In Islam, one is aware that the hour of death has been fixed by God. The shrouding and burial of the physical remains of the deceased should take place without delay. The “true believer” must be immediately ushered into Allah’s bedazzling presence; the “infidel” must be quickly consigned to his bed of fire, which will be fanned by the hot winds of hell.

The true believer is one whose religion is Islam, whose prophet is Muhammed, and whose sacred book is the Qur’an. At death, Allah will send the true believer into the Garden of Paradise where he will be clothed in a celestial garment and given delectable pleasures. But for the “pernicious infidel,” the messenger of death will execute Allah’s disapproval and wrath. That man’s soul will be scattered and dragged forth “like the dragging of an iron spit through moist wool, tearing the veins. . . . “

In Islam, life is a preparation for death, for facing the justice and glory of God. Death at best is an agonizing event, and funerals are marked by lamentation, resignation, and manifest bereavement. None but Allah knows the outcome of death. One’s fate is in his hands. Hence, even for faithful Shem, the anguish of dying turned his beard from gray to white.

Hanna reports that his first experience with an American funeral in Salt Lake City was very disturbing. He learned that in American-Mormon practice there is a deliberate lapse of several days between death and burial during which time family and friends of the deceased visit the mortuary and participate in a public viewing of the body. Hanna was mystified by the spirit of joyfulness that seemed to prevail at this viewing. In sharp contrast to the foreboding atmosphere of “crying and screaming” he had known at funeral rites in the Middle East, this American meeting was marked by an atmosphere of optimism and friendliness, what Truman Madsen in his paper says is closely analogous to a heartwarming missionary farewell. There was composure and even some smiles. Hanna was startled by the question put by a close relative of the deceased as to whether the body in the casket, which had been cosmetically prepared to look as lifelike as possible, did not indeed look beautiful. The funeral which followed the viewing was simple, personal and brief. After the funeral, the bereaved immediately returned to their normal routines.

In Egypt, by contrast, the funeral is followed by a specified period of mourning during which friends and relatives congregate at the home of the deceased to give and receive condolences, commiserate, and drink refreshments. Food is served for three days, but the period of mourning continues for forty. After forty days, professional mourners are brought in, and on Thursdays thereafter people carry palm branches to the tombs of their ancestors.

In a stimulating paper on Mormon distinctions in death and dying, Truman Madsen suggests that in Mormonism there are several kinds of death but the role of Christ is to overcome them all. He observes that in some world religions the role of deity and questions of immortality are often separated, but in Mormonism they are not. Mormonism equates God, immortality, and resurrection. And in its highest expression, life requires all three.

Some philosophers speak of feeling the constant threat of death, but according to Madsen, Joseph Smith, the American founder of Mormonism, regarded death as the key to personal fulfillment and redemption. Death is not a stark enemy but a passing phase in an eternal journey that began for all in a pre-existent spiritual state.

Edward “Ted” Jones urges that whatever else may be said of his scholarly findings on ascension motifs in world religion, men must be willing to admit that supernatural experience is actually possible. Human beings can conceivably ascend to heaven and enjoy a foretaste of deity and the divine while still on earth. In a thoroughgoing analysis of ascension stories in five major religious traditions—Hebrew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist—Jones cites numerous reports of pious and faithful people having been taken into the presence of God before tasting death, having received divine revelation, and having been miraculously translated so as not to have to endure the ordeal of death at all.

Jones has discovered a number of common patterns in these various ascension experiences: death is not the end of life, but a new beginning; there are many heavens and hells, and as one progresses upward, one faces greater light; when the faithful are ushered into the presence of God, they receive previously hidden knowledge in the form of new symbols, keys, and crowns; divine authority and power is granted; one obtains perfect union with God; and the holy experience of entering into God’s presence can have vicarious benefits for others, the dead as well as the living.

In Mormon theology all life is precious, and the innumerable living beings of the universe are sacred. They deserve respect and reverence, and it is on the basis of these beliefs that Gerald Jones suggests a legitimate comparison between “ahimsa” and certain elements in Mormon thought.

All the religions of India stress the importance of reverence for life, but Jainism has always been the most fervent supporter of this doctrine of non-injury (ahimsa) toward living beings. Buddhism does not allow for life in plants in the sense that gods, human beings or animals have life. Jainism and Mormonism, however, find spirits not only in plants but in the earth and the very elements of earth. In Mormon scripture, as Madsen observes, the earth itself is a living entity, a body actuated by a spirit. That body has been baptized, must be sanctified by fire, and will eventually die and pass into a new phase.

In some Asian faiths the spirit suffers under the weight of material bondage, and acts of selfishness and injury, violence, murder, killing and cruelty are by far the most damaging. Proscriptions against those are most common. Jain monks vow that they will not deliberately harm even microscopic life in earth, water, fire, or wind. They strain their drinking water in order to avoid harming the spirit entities within it, and they carry fly whisks to clear the path before them in order to avoid stepping on unnoticed insects or bugs. Jones explains that their ahimsa, their reverence for all life, leads to a wide-ranging asceticism, including a strict vegetarian diet.

Mormon reverence for life does not go to such extremes, but it is important. After tracing ahimsa motifs in Hebrew, Greek, and Puritan thought, Jones shows that Mormon scriptures and the teachings of Church leaders not only strongly oppose murder and violence and have frequently denounced war, but have urged kindness and respect for animal life (even venomous snakes), restraints in eating meat, and abstinence from food and drink on the first Sunday of each month. And this fasting is to be accompanied by compassion and prayer, and by giving financial assistance to those in need.

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism regard the body as an impediment to spiritual life. Salvation is to be found in freeing the spirit (soul) from matter, that it may regain its pristine purity and enjoy bliss. Mormons believe that the whole world is alive with individual spirit beings which inhabit physical bodies. However, where Jains and others may believe that the spirits are chained to matter and must gain release, Mormons teach that God has made provision for physical bodies to be placed on earth precisely for the purpose of receiving spirits. To be alive in this physical world is a great blessing, absolutely prerequisite to individual immortality, whether for animals, plants, or man. In Mormon belief the purpose of life is to transform the flesh, not to mortify it, that man may become more like God, who himself has a celestialized body of flesh and bones.

Seiji Katanuma’s delightful essay is concerned with the role of the many gods in ancient Japanese religion. He views them through reference to the earliest religious texts, the Kojiki and the Nihongi. It is a picture far different from that of China, for the Japan of legend is an eight-island country of splendor and brightness, of towering mountains and shimmering streams, of brilliant sun, languid moon and glittering stars, and fields of rice with golden shafts. Japan is the land of the kami, the nature gods. Its religion is Shinto, the way of the gods. In traditional Shinto there is no supreme absolute, no transcendent creator god, no creed, no founder of faith, no metaphysical goal, no sin, no devil, no concern with resurrection, no explanation of life after death. There is only a consciousness of light as opposed to darkness, purity as opposed to filthiness, and a wide variety of customs and folkways on how to gain a beautiful mind and to appreciate and honor the awesome powers of nature. In short, it is showing respect for kami.

Among the ancient Japanese, the world of death was called the country of the tree-roots—a place which lay far beyond the fields of flowing rice shafts. But there was no doctrine to explain who would go to the dark place—the country of roots—and who would not.

Philosophical questions dealing with death, or the ultimate state of nirvana, were introduced into Japan from India via China and Korea at the beginning of the sixth century. In the end, these new Buddhist ideas addressed questions of being and life after death, which Shinto continued to slight or ignore. But in time native Shinto, with its focus on the kami, developed a “monarchical mystique” based on the worship of an imperial family which traced its lineage back to Amaterasu, the kami of the sun. The process by which this was accomplished is of primary concern in Katanuma’s research.

In his insightful essay on “Chinese Modes of Objectifying Divine Power,” the concluding paper in this collection, Laurence Thompson cautions that there is always the hazard of constructing easy and spurious analogies between religious systems and suggests that it is particularly self-defeating to attempt to understand Chinese views of deity and the divine from the vantage point of traditional Western theological concepts. This caution has also been voiced by some Jewish scholars who maintain that Judaism, unlike Christianity, is not really a religion, or that creedal religion is only a small part of the totality of what is involved in being a Jew. From this standpoint, Christians frequently run the risk of imposing an exterior system of categories on an inherently organic Judaic “system” because that religion is a mixture of folk and faith, culture and tradition, and law and history that is difficult to define and cannot be explained by the citation of a creed. This argument is sometimes applied to Mormonism, which is characterized as a way of life, a religion without catechism or creed, and one committed to progressive revelation.

Thompson differentiates between Chinese, Western, and Indian views of divine power. For the biblical faiths of the West (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), God is outside and above nature; he is the creator and man is his creation. In India, God and creation are the same. But among the Chinese, the problem of the divine is more ambiguous, or at least more complex. At the philosophical level among the Chinese, man and nature are part of a great whole, a gestalt; ultimate reality is not a personal deity, it is Tao. And Tao is neither worshipped nor objectified. Yet at the popular level, there is ample room for personified gods. As in Mormonism and Japanese Shinto, Chinese deities apparently proliferate and counsel together. In Chinese popular religion, polytheism is pronounced. This polytheism stands in marked contrast to most other major Western religions which are characterized by a belief in only one true God.

In Chinese religion there are numerous demons (kuei), but there is no transcendental struggle between good and evil, no strict duality between evil forces and God so characteristic of the Christian world, and it might be added, of Mormonism. Rather, Tao is one. Tao is abstract and mystical, and overarches all. There is no exact equivalent of Tao in Mormon thought, although “the light of truth” and “the light of Christ” (D&C 88:6 ft) sometimes seem to approach it. Thompson posits that in Chinese religion there is no principle or power of evil at large in the universe of which malevolent spirits are agents. Rather, the countless malign spirits, so widely acknowledged at the folk level, are ghosts of humans who have proven to be a menace to the community because of their bitter resentment at having been abandoned by descendants who failed to perform vicarious ancestral rites.

Spencer J. Palmer