Death in different Civilizations

The History of Death: Death in Mesoamerica, East, and West

The History of Death: Death in Mesoamerica, East, and West

The way death has been approached by different cultures, through their believes, myths, customs, and ceremonies, has varied within time; and it is in funerary rituals where a way of living manifests, along with beliefs around death. Historian Oswald Spengler expressed it this way: “there is a profound relation between the way we interpret the historical past and the conception of death.”[1]


Some 75,000 years ago, men already explained their world through magical-religious thinking. During Neanderthal man times, people buried the dead along with burial goods that consisted of utensils they had used in life (such as rock tools). Also, people placed animals in the hands of the deceased, and often they deposited medicinal flowers and plants inside their graves. The Neanderthal man held mortuary rituals in honor of the dead. Some anthropologists have noted that those rituals suggested that the belief in reincarnation was already present.

Ancient East Cultures


People worshipped Meng Po, goddess of the reincarnation and “Lady of Forgetfulness”, who was in charge of making souls forget when they were close to rebirth. With a special tea, she managed to make souls forget their previous life, as well as the time they had spent in the Di Yu (home of the death).[2]

Vedism, Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism (India):

In Jainism, death is considered as natural part of existence. While in Vedism, the most ancient religion in India, the term dead is barely mentioned, in Hinduism, the belief in reincarnation affirms the immortality of the soul; the body, on the other hand, exists within birth and death.[3]

Shintoism-Buddhism and Taoism-Confucianism (Japan):

In these religions, death is not the end of life but the result of the natural movement of the universe. All existing things, including humans, are seen through the concept of transitoriness. Also, they believe in the immortality of the soul.

In both Shintoism and Buddhism, life does not end with death. By contrast, life and death integrate a wholeness, where death is a mirror in which the meaning of life is reflected. Death is only a transformation of the physical form (the body), since it does not destroy nor alter the spiritual essence. Buddhism, in particular, believes in paradise (Tengoku) and hell (Dyigoku).

Regarding the rituals, people accustom a purification ceremony, where they evocated the soul of the dead (Kami). They also carried on human sacrifices. People still practice the tradition of welcoming the ancestors’ souls at home, once a year. It is called the Butsudan.

Pre-Colombian Cultures

Mesoamerican cultures elaborated myths to understand their world, where gods were in charge of guiding humanity’s destiny. Codices, along with archeological discoveries and chronicles wrote by Hispanic conquerors, have proven that human sacrifices were common. According to these civilizations’ cosmovision, during these sacrificing practices, gods no longer were the “givers” of life, but the “receptors.” Dying was part of their cosmic order: ceremonies and rituals were a manifestation of gratitude toward the gods since they were the ones who sustained the vital cycle.


Mayans’ vision of death is of fear and pain. There is a duality between life and death, as well as between good (Yaxche) and evil (Mitnal). This culture believes in the soul immortality (Ol), and among their funerary practices highlight offerings and cremation of corpses.


As the Mayans, these civilizations also perceived death in terms of fear and pain. For the Teotihuacan culture, duality materializes through the Sun and the Moon, entities that emerge from human sacrifices. In the Aztec civilization (Mexicas), the concept of death is also dual, and it manifests through the so-called “Flower Wars” (Guerras Floridas). In these wars, human sacrifices give life to the Fifth Sun, which feds with the brave warriors’ blood. Mexicas worshiped Mictlantecuhtli, “Lord of the Land of the Dead.”[4]


Incas believed that life continued after death: the deceased became part of the world of the huacas, which maintained a divine connection with a dark force. Corpses were partially embalmed, a process that was benefited by the arid weather that enabled them to dry without decomposing. Inside their graves, bodies were fitted in a fetal or a sited position while covered with blankets. People also placed provisions, tools, and other sorts of objects favored in daily life by the deceased.

After the Spanish Conquest, a religious syncretism evolved. In this cultural encounter, some elements of Mesoamerican rituals prevailed, such as the offerings of The Day of the Dead, a ceremony where people worship the dead’s souls. However, other practices, such as human sacrifices, were condemned by Europeans since they first arrived in the XVI century.[5]

Ancient Mediterranean Cultures


Egyptians believed in Ka, a vital force that remains alive as long as the body is maintained uncorrupt, hence the existence of mummification. In Ancient Egypt, Anubis was the god of death. The earlier of the funerary books, carved in a pharaonic pyramid, was The Book of the Dead. This book was meant to help the pharaoh, son of the Sun, during his journey through the hereafter. And thus, ensure his regeneration and eternal life. Egyptians created the legend of Osiris trial, also known as the trial of the death, where people were judged before reaching a new life after death.[6]


In this civilization, death is perceived with anguish, as evidenced in the tablets that contain the Poem of Gilgamesh. This poem reunites the mind of different cultures, Sumerians, Acadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, which aspire to immortality. However, this desire is hardly ever achieved due to the trial carried out by gods of the underworld or Anunnakis.[7]


Persian mythology conceives a duality that opposes constructive energy to death: Spenta Mainyu in opposition to Angra Mainyu.[8]


Religion dominated every aspect of the Jews. Judaism emerges at this point and, thus, monotheism. The prohibition of representing divinity encouraged the writing of the Bible.

Judaism believes that paradise and eternal life in the hereafter depends on individual action. The body is the clothing of the soul. When detached from the body, the soul no longer has physical limitations as it had in life. For them, God’s work is perfect. He brings people into the world, demanding from them an effort to fulfill their missions in life.


Celtic mythology is influenced by roman mythology. Druids thought they all descended from the God of the Death, Donn in Gaelic, which means “the dark one”. The Romans referred to him as Pater.


In Greek mythology, non-violent death was represented by Thanatos, twin brother of Hypnos, who personified sleep. Violent death was under the domain of the Keres, their sisters. The myths say that the Keres had a passion for blood, hence their presence on the battlefield.

According to Platonic philosophy, the soul is immortal; therefore, when corporal death arrives, the soul is released from the body and thus lingers its existence. Reaching eternity depends on the soul’s behavior during life. This element will prevail in Christianism.


During the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, people did not have a clear narrative of what happened after death; however, different funerary rites and customs existed. These practices were the social status of the deceased expressed. Influenced by Greek culture, once corpses were buried, people used to prepare offerings destined to help the spirits (Dii Manes) through their journey beyond. The god of death is Mors. Before a funeral took place, people held a ritual in the house of the deceased that consisted of bathing the corpse and spreading aromatic oils on it. Both burials and incineration existed, as well as keeping ashes in urns.

West Christian World:

In Western cultures, physical death has been considered a taboo due to the pain that mourning brings, and because in the presence of death, the weakness and impotence of men become an undeniable reality. Christianism affirms that both life and death originate in God and address to God. Death is the beginning of true life: eternal life. For them, Jesus Christ did not come to suppress death, but to die for humanity.

Apostol Paul expressed it this way: For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:4)

For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end, Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living. (Romans 14: 8,9)

The Gospel of John state that when his friend Lazarus died, in response to Martha’s prophecy, the Lord said: I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. (John 11:25)[9]

Islamic World:

Islam emerges a monotheistic religion, destined to create a new way of living. It was founded by Muhammad, to unite the Arabic cultures during the VII century. Islam evolved until it became a complex net of schools and theological cults, which believe that earthly life is nothing but a preparation for the afterlife.  Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam also believes in hell and paradise. According to Islamic theology, Ala will physically resurrect the dead on the Final Judgement, whether to allow their entrance into heaven or to send them to hell. When a Muslim dies, people bathe the entire body. During the funeral, the bereaved join in prayers while they bury the deceased.[10]

The rigth ro Die with Dignity era:

During the end of last century and the first 20 years of the 21st. Century, analysis, discussion and law promotion to more modern legislation has been growing concern about the need to regulate the unecessary pain and suffering caused by medical efforts to maintain life against all odds to recover a healthy status. WFRtDS has united a worldwide network of non profit associations working in their countries to create awareness of this essential issue. DMD Mexico has also taken the leadership in working locally for a better legislation and counseling to the people who needs legal orientation.

[1] Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

[2] Christie, Anthony. Chinese mythology. London: Hamlyn, 1968.

[3] Trevor Ling. A history of Religion East and West. Harper & Row. 1970.

[4] Ibarra Grasso, Dick. Cosmogonía y mitología indígena americana. Buenos Aires: Kier, 1997.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Quirke, Stephen. Ancient Egyptian Religion. London: British Museum Press, 1992.

[7] Bottéro, Jean. La religión más antigua. Spanish translation from French, María Tabuyo & Agustín López. Madrid: Trotta, 2001.

[8] Pisa Sánchez, Jorge. Breve Historia de los persas. Madrid: Nowtilius, 2011.

[9] Holy Bible. HarperCollins, New York. 2018.

[10] Trevor Ling. A history of Religion East and West. Harper & Row. 1970.

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