How Are Death Rituals Indicative of Aspects of Identity?
"The fundamental Law of Social order is...the progressive control of life and death" (Baudrillard; 1984; p172) and it has been said that, "Life becomes transparent against the background of death" (Huntington & Metcalf; 1979; p2). This is most cogently expressed in Tibetan views in synch with other Buddhist views in Asia, and demonstrated in the 'Book of the Dead'. Essentially, the fear that death must be confronted to truly achieve spiritual professes in the cycle of rebirth, towards the goal of enlightenment in order to attain the status of oneness with Buddha. Much meditation occurs on the topic of death, and familial members present at the death-bed attempt not distract from this confrontation, where often a lama may preside to help the dying and their family. Religious orientation can play a major role in identity formation and is reflected in death ethos and ritual. Tibetans reportedly even hacked up their dead for bird food as they had little want, need or respect for the corpse, which was just considered to be an empty vessel for the reincarnated soul.
Death is dealt with differently by people in different cultures depending on their death and mortality ethos. It is assumed here that social environments directly structure the individual experience of death (and its accompanying rituals); death like the identities of the people it effects, is a social construct. Indeed, it has been said, and I agree, that to study the attitudes and fears of individuals divorced from their socio-cultural milieus is as futile as ethologists studying animal behaviour in zoos! However, these conflicting views put forwards by different societies can never be reconciled, since nobody ahs come back from the dead to say whose was the most correct or which rituals were the most use. History, Hegel once wrote, is the record of "what man does with death" (Whaley; 1981; p1). Death is a biological fact which man shares with other species. Yet only man's existence is characterised by the awareness of his mortality and transitory nature, and so, in a sense, as W.B. Yeats claimed, "Man has created death", and my belief is that this argument can be extended by saying, perhaps, Death creates man, and its rituals can recreate men.
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