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Purpose of Death Rituals in Different Societies

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Anthropology
Wordcount: 3386 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Even though death is a universal aspect that affects all people in different cultures, the responses to the deaths vary based on the practices and values in the culture. These practices are the death rituals that encompass the actions taken towards the dead shaped by their values and culture. Rich in history and symbolism, death rituals provide testament to the lives the dead were living in a way that is compatible with the beliefs within the community. They usually begin when the individuals stop breathing or are identified as dead and apply to the treatment, disposal, and the behavioral requirement is required during the mourning period. In the many cultures that exist, the identity of the dead does not disappear and is commemorated through the death rituals. As the world increasingly becomes integrated, the anthropological study of death rituals is critical in understanding the complexities of death. This helps to understand and respect the different cultures from one’s own and respond in meaningful ways. Examining death from an anthropological stance, this paper will analyse the sense of ritual and purposes of the ceremony in the society.

What is death?

Death is considered the end of life of an organism. Statistically, death has been based on the underlying causes, which, can be defined as either the injury or disease that an individual suffered from that created the train of events leading to the death, or other circumstances that involve violence or accidents that helped create a fatal injury (WHO, 2004). These underlying causes are based on an array of conditions leading up to the death. In poorer countries, the leading cause of death is infectious diseases. In developed the leading cause is the non-communicable diseases including cancer (WHO, 2004). In middle income, the leading cause of death is the non-communicable diseses such as road accidents (WHO, 2004).

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Aside from causes, death is also categorized to help indicate the manner through which an individual died. In classification, five main classes are currently accepted when categorizing death (WHO, 2004). These classes include natural, suicide, accidents, undetermined, homicide, and pending. A natural way of death is the end of life as a result of natural processes without being hastened by other factors such as injuries. Examples of such death include SIDS, the sudden unexplained death of infants that are under the age of one-year-old (SGC, 2016). Accidental deaths are the unnatural deaths that occur as a result of chance events. The types include road accidents, on job-related accidents, overdoses, and complications that occur during medical procedures (SGC, 2016). Suicide is death due to self-inflicted injuries with the intent to die (SGC, 2016). The evidence of intent must be present and includes verbal communication, evidence of previous attempts, or actions that seem to imply intent. Examples of such include self-inflicted fatal wounds at close range.

Homicide is the death that results from actions of one person that leads to the direct cause of death of another (SGC, 2016). This classification includes deaths that result from the commission of felonies and violent deaths from actions done on purpose. Homicide and murder are not classified as the same because while all murders are homicides, not all homicides are murder (SGC, 2016). Murder is a classification used within the criminal justice system, to determine intent as a matter of general concepts. Undetermined is the classification that is listed in a small number of cases when there is little available information that explains the circumstance in the death of the individual It is also used when there is information that supports more than one cause (SGC, 2016). Another classification of death is pending when the cause of death requires additional investigation in order to accurately confirm the cause of death (SGC, 2016). These classifications are usually left pending until additional information needed becomes available and is added on to place it in the right category (SGC, 2016). Death, therefore, is as a result of different causes that are classified under different categories. All these types of deaths have a significant psychological impact on the individual close to the dead some more so than others.

Psychological effects of death

Grief as part of the psychological effects of death is a universal reaction that occurs in the sociocultural context. Mourning represents the accepted cultural expression of feelings that follow the death of an individual. In death, the social dimensions that concern the values and beliefs emanating from the culture guide the psychological effects (Davies 2002).

Considerable evidence shows that the death of parents in homes usually brings about negative effects in the physical and mental well-being of the individuals (Davies 2002). Based on the current social dimensions that exist multiple cultures shows different effects of loss based on the gender of the individuals. One social dimension that exists in the community is the relationship that exists between same genders (Marks & Song 2007). This is common in most cultures found and is reflected even in death. Studies show that the death of the male parent has more negative effects on the male children in the homes compared to the female children (Marks & Song 2007). Although it negatively affects both the men and the women, the loss of the father is associated with greater depression and low mental well-being on the sons(Marks & Song 2007). In contrast, the Death of the mother is more problematic to the daughters in comparison to the sons leading to lower self-esteem and depression in the daughters.

Additionally, the psychological effects of death have a causal relationship with the behavioral changes in individuals. Death is considered a major life cycle event that affects the behaviors of individuals (Keyes 2014). People vary in the way they express grief. Not surprisingly, the death of a child is more difficult to cope with and can lead to prolonged grief years after the death of the child (Jordan & Litz 2014). Prolonged grief, however, leads to behavioral changes that make the individuals display extended reactions over a long period of time (Jordan & Litz 2014). When a bereaved person expresses intense focus with the loss until it is interfering with his daily life they are said to have undergone the behavioral changes as a result of the psychological effects (Jordan & Litz 2014). Given the cultural diversity that exists in expressing grief, there are commonalities in the behavioral changes of individuals due to death. Death is linked to changes that spur on regression in individuals, anger, high-risk behaviors, mood swings, and tiredness (Keyes 2014). In the regression of individuals, death throws the individual in a state of fear and insecurity, which may cause them to go back to when they felt safe before the death of the individual. Anger and frustration may also result from death that changes the behavior of the individual.

Individuals, as well, may also engage in high-risk behaviors to help cope or forget the loss (Jordan & Litz 2014). In some circumstances, individuals may turn to alcohol, substance abuse, criminal activities or self-harm because of the effects of the loss on the well-being of the person (Keyes 2014). Additionally, they may also display mood swings created from an imbalance in the hormones that regulate a person’s mood (Keyes 2014). This may push individuals to depression and volatile behavior. Grief is also an exhausting process and may dramatically affect the sleeping patterns of the loved ones (Jordan & Litz 2014). As a result, it interferes with the psychology of the individual and make them lethargic or lacking energy. This creates the psychological effects of tiredness that individuals face during death.

Anthropology aspect of Death

In the different societies that exist when individuals die, there is a structured and patterned way in which they respond to death. The cultural guidelines in the society help determine the grief process, period and the treatment of the body (Davies 2002). It creates the death rituals in the culture that act as a blueprint of the beliefs they hold which are to pass down from generation to generation (Davies 2002). In anthropology studies, death is seen different in magic, science, and religion. Anthropologists through records show that when individuals are subjected to magic and sorcery, it may bring death (Cannon 2002). Among the natives of places like Australia Africa and South America, voodoo death is reported through observations (Cannon 2002). The phenomenon is considered a foreign experience in other civilized cultures that see it as unauthentic. In science, death is defined as the end of life through the permanent end of all the bodily functions (Rettner, 2014). For medical reasons, death is the irreversible end of the brain function, respiratory function and circulatory functions (Rettner, 2014). A person is declared dead when they lose their brain activity because, without the brain, the body is unable to secrete the essential hormone that keeps the biological processes running (Rettner, 2014). Anthropologist that base their findings on evolutionary theories, on the other hand, argue that religion is a common idea that frames the values of the different cultures and provides an understanding of death (Simpson 2018). It offers answers and explains life after death. In Christianity for example, human life ends in death but there is the divine salvation that helps individuals become born again so that when the physical body dies, his spirit will continue in the afterlife.

Symbolic immortality is another anthropological aspect that is studied in death. In symbolic immortality, there is the biological component where individuals feel that after death they have something left that will live on to represent them (Santos et al., 2010). This is the continuity of the heritage of the family and includes children and family who will carry on the spirit of the individual after death. Additionally, there is the religious element of immorality where the belief is that there is life after death (Santos et al., 2010). This is seen in most religious practices where there is the presence of a higher authority such a God, in Christianity, Buddha in Buddhism, and the gods of the Roman, Egyptian, and Greek empires (Santos et al., 2010). Life after death is a view embedded in the religious philosophy. There is also the creative component of immorality that involves living after death through art and literature (Santos et al., 2010). This encompasses the accomplishments that are left remembered for generations later. Examples include the Mona Lisa by Fernando De Vinci that acts as a creative symbolic immorality, which allows De Vinci to live on even after death (Santos et al., 2010). Finally, there is the symbolic immortality of nature that represent the natural elements that live on after death individuals (Santos et al., 2010). This includes the mountains and the rivers that stand as a representation of the society after generations.

Death and Culture

            There is a wide variation in how people are expected to behave. Death and culture can relate to the political and religious aspects that help guide the death care of the deceased.

Death affords the opportunity to utilize the identity of the individual for various political purposes. This helps in reminding that death in culture is not about just grief or the closest family to the deceased. For instance, during the revolutionary period in the 1950s in China, party officials were to be cremated without a mausoleum that differentiates them from the mass of people (Davies 2002). This is because preservation of the political figures could lead to the desecration of the body by opposition political leaders. The evils of politics can also be seen through the death of the Jews by the Nazi (Davies 2002). During the Second World War, they were regarded as unworthy and cremation was used as a form of destruction to symbolize their value to the Nazi (Davies 2002). Thousands of individuals were subject to mass cremations during the period at the Holocaust showing the relation of politics to death. In religion, death is related to the rituals created from the values and beliefs held within their practices (Simpson 2018). Many anthropologists have pointed out that religion is seen as an answer to all the death related questions that help provide individuals with some form of control (Simpson 2018). It also helps provide a sense of meaning and the spiritual belief is considered one of the most important aspects that help put death into perspective and find the meaning of life. Christianity, for instance, views the death OF Jesus as a sacrifice for humans to help provide them with salvation form their sins.

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 These different rituals help show how the care of the deceased in the culture is conducted. Universally, expression of grief is accepted within most cultures as a way to express the loss of the deceased. In the care, some cultures talk to the dead in order to connect the spirit and domestic would. The western culture belief in tidying that grave of the dead and bringing flowers as a remembrance to the families.

Mortuary Rituals

Mortuary rituals involve how the remains of the dead are handled in different cultures. These rituals help the members acknowledge their loss, maintain a link with the dead, and help the bereaved continue with their normal life. The rituals vary across the different cultures but the most commonly used include a wake for the body, a cremation, or funeral and the different festivities to celebrate the person’s life. These activities involve the different rites of passage that represent the dead and the burial practices.

The rites of passage are the rituals that are done to help assist the deceased members of the society to transition in the death phase. The idea was first introduced by anthropologists Gennep who described the rite of passage as separation, segregation, and integration (Gire, 2014). This means that for the new, self to emerge the old one has to die and the rites take place to help separate them from the status they have left in the society. Such understanding of the rituals have ahead of the funeral rite of passage conducted within the society. The rite of passage in cultures adheres to sets of beliefs and behaviors that help the individual in their death transition. In the funeral rite of passage, the first step is to dispose of the body. It is then followed by the psychological purposes it served in explaining and justifying the death (Gire, 2014). Additionally, it helps take the dead safely out of this world to the next. The individual is then represented in different forms after death. In some cultures, the rite of passage linked to the funeral involves the close family shaving their heads, wearing certain clothing and mourning for a period of time. In others, the person in the kinship is required to marry the deceased to keep the family of the individual among his family.

Death also involves burials that vary across the different cultures. For instance, in Bosnian Muslims, rituals are to be performed on the body of the deceased the process of the burial in order to allow the person to move on (Gire, 2014). In eastern Ecuador, the burial process involves forgetting as much as possible about the deceased including their name, actions, and activities (Gire, 2014). This is because they believe the dead are vengeful and lonely thus will feel the need to connect with those left behind. Thus, the burial must involve eliminating the deceased and the connection they have.


Ultimately, from the analysis above death rituals serve various purposes in the society. The death rituals have a psychological and social effect on the bereaved that functions to help them move n from the death of the loved one. Psychologically, one purpose that the sense of rituals serves is in providing the grieving period that helps the individuals accommodate the dramatic loss. The different ceremonies and rituals provide the opportunity for the members in the society to connect with the individual as they move to the afterlife. In grieving, death rituals help the individuals come to terms with the loss and have a powerful effect on helping the individual cope. Additionally, death is symbolic activities that bring the society together to celebrate the identity of one of their own and help them transition. These purposes serve to reconcile the death of the loved one in the community while changing their identity from the living to the dead. These social and psychological elements in the death rituals enable the support group of the society to the bereaved and to each other as they mourn.


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