Death may be universal, but our perceptions are different around the world.
Death is an aspect of the human experience that we all deal with, no matter where in the world you live. How we perceive and process it, however, can vary depending on religions, societal traditions, and personal beliefs. Some people may prefer a traditional funeral and burial, while some may opt for something else like cryopreservation.
Now, to provide a recap of the different traditions and attitudes towards death around the globe is complicated. There are 7 continents, a total of 195 countries. Each one has their own cultural identity that has different religions and beliefs about life and death, and that’s not including regional differences in one country!
Cultures found on the same continent can have different attitudes towards the living and the dead. Much of this can be reflected in belief and expressed through rituals and practices that have changed over time. Yet, when it comes to cryonics, this can also potentially shape and impact our understanding of the dead. At Tomorrow Bio, the fastest growing cryonics company in Europe, we are curious as to how people around the world perceive the “end of life”.
To get a better idea of the different cultural attitudes towards the dead, we’ll visit a few different locations.
Throughout the history of Europe, the perception of death has undergone significant changes. Factoring in regional variation, history, sociology and cultural influences, there are numerous attitudes about dying and its meaning across this one continent. This makes it a challenge to generalize and summarize a singular belief about the end of life.
Prior to the arrival of Christianity, pagans among the ancient Celts, Romans, and Norse had their own customs and beliefs about life after death. For example, in Greco-Roman antiquity, the dead were seen as pollution that required specific funerary care to ensure protection from their ancestors. Without a proper funeral rite, spirits were believed to wander the earth. Ever read the Iliad or seen Troy? When Achilles drags the body of the dead Prince Hector around the walls of Troy, this was considered a sacrilegious act by Greek society. This was desecrating the dead, which even Homer writes that the gods condemned.
Among the Norse, depending on how you died determined where you would go in the afterlife. Those who died in battle would find themselves among the einherjar in Valhalla along with Odin until the time of Ragnarok. For those who died of illness or old age, they would enter Hel, or the underworld.
Religious influences after Christianity’s arrival around the 6th century up to the present helped shape the collective understanding of what happens to the dead. By the 20th century, the end of life was considered a grim, fearful, and taboo topic. This has led to societies focused on either death-denial or avoidance. With the aid of modern technology, there has been an increase of interest in the end of life, and understanding what happens when we die.
Across Europe, we can see a mixture of both secular and religious perspectives towards the deceased. In Germany, for example, the attitude towards dying is that it is inevitable, a more matter-of-fact perception. The cultural outlook is to discourage becoming too emotional with the departed, and understanding that it is a part of life. We can see this in the funerary industry, where there are highly-regulated laws in place for the deceased. Case in point, if your loved one dies and you want to cremate them, according to German law, you must also ‘bury’ the cremated remains in a cemetery. Despite the regulations on treating the dead, there are still elements of Christian practices incorporated into the funeral rites.
Moving southward, the importance of ritual is still prevalent in traditional Croatian funerary rites and beliefs regarding the recently deceased. When a person dies, they are buried within one day of their death. For the living, an all-night wake is held in the house of the deceased so that they are not alone in the dark. Mourners come to say their final goodbyes and reminisce about the recently departed, though it is still a somber affair.
Afterward, the body is then ritually bathed and dressed in formal clothing, given a pair of rosary beads, then covered in a white sheet. Traditionally, a funeral procession would then follow which has a specific order. At the front is the cross, followed by men, wreaths, the priest, the deceased, their family, and then women. Sometimes professional mourners are hired to cry loudly for the dead. After the funeral, the burial tools would be left behind because they were considered unclean.
Much like in Europe, the perception of the end of life in Asia has undergone significant changes over time. A mix of different religions and philosophies over the course of centuries has helped to shape and define cultural beliefs and attitudes. From Abrahamic religions such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, to Eastern religions such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Shintoism, to Indian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, each has shaped cultural beliefs about the “eternal rest” across this vast continent.
As a result, there are multiple perspectives as to how cultures deal with the deceased. This can be broken down, broadly speaking, by the region. For example, death in the East is seen as a transition, and the best method to process loss is to accept it as a fact of life. While in the Indian region of Asia, it is perceived as circular. A person is believed to die, then be reborn with a new identity. Let’s take a closer look at these concepts in practice.
Among the Acehnese societies in the Pidie Regency of Ache, the treatment of the dead borrows from a combination of pre-Islamic, Islamic, and Hindu traditions. One of the main customs is the kenduri or feast ritual. This ritual is conducted at specific times in the year, usually corresponding to certain numeral days such as the 7th, 14th, 30th, and 100th day after their departure. Anyone can carry out the festival regardless of social class, though for the poor, it may take time as they usually need to borrow money for the ceremonies; a similar occurrence among the Torajan. On the last day of the festival, an animal sacrifice is offered to the deceased.
To the Acehnese people, it is important to carry out these ceremonies to ensure the release of the aruwah or soul of the deceased. Failure to do this risks the spirit of the departed being tormented, while the living may face social punishment or ostracization.
In China, discussions around the deceased is considered taboo as there is a fear of invoking bad luck. While passing away is considered a part of life, the living are encouraged to exercise self-cultivation techniques such as Tai-Chi Chuan or feng shui to try to prolong their life. This is reflective of aspects of Taoist and Buddhist philosophies.
How the recently departed is treated is dependent on factors, the most critical being age, and social status. Proper respect is paid to elders in Chinese culture, even to the dead. This includes washing and dressing the body, preparing their home for the funeral, and adhering to proper funeral etiquette. For example, your relationship with the departed determines what you can wear at the funeral. If they were your spouse or parent, you wear black clothes which symbolize great sadness. However, if they were your grandparent or great-grandparent, you would wear different shades of blue clothes. The darker the color, the stronger the relationship you have with the deceased.
The funeral ceremonies would involve a shou ling or wake where members of the family sit with the deceased to prepare for their transition into the afterlife. Mourners will bring food, incense and joss papers, envelopes that contain money, and other offerings. The wake can take up to several days, and is largely conducted by the family of the departed. Then, the funeral commences with a procession to the cemetery or crematorium.
After the ceremonies, a burial will take place on a hillside in accordance with feng shui, the practice of arranging physical spaces to balance the energies of the natural world. If a burial is done incorrectly, it is believed that bad luck will befall the family.
Interestingly, there is a cryonics facility in China. The Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute in Jinan, Shandong established in 2016 conducts research into cryobiology, and currently has at least eight people cryopreserved in their facility.
Similar to the countries previously mentioned, different religions and customs were integrated into established beliefs around the dead across the African continent. Broadly speaking, the perception of death in Africa is that it is not the complete end of one’s life, but that they continue to another world. The greatest achievement that the dead can attain is becoming an ancestor. However, this can only happen if one passes on from an ‘expected death’ rather than one that was unexpected, or sudden. In terms of treatment of the dead, this can vary depending on tribal customs.
In Ghana, for example, the Asante or Ashanti people, death is believed not to be the end of life but a transition into another; a journey to the world of their ancestors. As previously mentioned, how one dies in the community will affect how the tribe treats their remains. A person who dies of old age will be treated honorably and venerated, compared to someone who dies unexpectedly.
Compared to other cultures where the funeral rites and rituals are somber affairs, the Asante celebrate the life of the recently departed. The funeral is a community event that features offerings of food, drink and dances to the dead as a respectful, final farewell. These rituals begin before expiration with the administration of last rites. After the person dies, their body is then washed three times by the oldest woman in the family before they are dried and dressed. This mournful period is then followed by funeral festivities.
So, those are just some examples of cultural and societal attitudes towards the end of life and the dead. But what does this have to do with cryonics you might be asking yourself? Just as culture defines our understanding and perception of what it means to pass on, so does cryonics.
Simply put, cryonics, aka human cryopreservation, is the practice of preserving human bodies at cryogenic temperatures (-196°C) after legal death. This is to pause the degradation process by vitrifying patients (not freezing) and storing them indefinitely in cryogenic storage dewars at a long term storage facility. There they will remain in a state of biostasis until future revival is possible. The revival process will require curing the cause of death as well as repairing any damages to the body that may have taken place during preservation. At Tomorrow Bio, we offer all-inclusive cryopreservation plans to give people a chance to choose how long they want to live.
With advancements in medical technology and techniques, we understand now that death is a process rather than a final end point. Proper medical treatment of the body for the purposes of revival is not so different from funerary rites and rituals which ensure that the soul of the departed can be at peace. The main difference is one focuses on the physiological based on scientific evidence, while the other focuses on the spiritual and is based on belief.
The dying process consists of 4 concepts of what an organism experiences: clinical, legal, biological and information theoretical death. 60 years ago, if you had a heart attack, without the invention of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) you would have been considered dead. This is because medical knowledge at the time wouldn’t have been able to help you.
Now, we know that being clinically dead (your heart beat stops) is different from being biologically dead. Likewise, while current medical technology can’t overcome biological death, cryonics might. With human cryopreservation, we pause the degradation process in the body after biological death, before it reaches the information-theoretic final phase. Future medical technology could advance enough to revive patients at this stage and save their lives.
Cryonics can help us challenge our definition of what it means to die. If cryopreservation can ‘pause’ dying indefinitely, how would this affect not just our scientific understanding of the end of life, but also our cultural understanding as well? Not just within our own cultures, but all over the world.
Death is a universal aspect that each of us deal with at some point in our lives. Where we are in the world, and the culture we grow up in can shape our beliefs on life and the end of it. But, as we have seen, this “final rest” is not really final, especially in cryonics. This unique opportunity allows humanity to challenge our previous understandings of life and the end of it, and evolve both culturally and scientifically. While the intent of cryonics isn’t to eliminate death and achieve immortality, it can help change how we interact with it in our lives both in the present and potentially in the future.
If you’re curious about cryonics and human cryopreservation, check out Tomorrow Insight. We cover a whole range of topics in cryonics from the preservation process to our current understanding of life and death. Want to discuss your own thoughts with other curious individuals? Come and join us on Discord, and we’ll see you tomorrow!