Almost every society known has some belief in Survival After Death and what happens to people when they die, although these beliefs vary enormously. The basic possibilities include a continuation of life with little change in the nature or quality of existence; a series of lives and deaths before ultimate extinction; moral improvement through a series of stages, levels, or “planes”; and bodily resurrection at some future date. Alongside the idea of a future life one often finds beliefs in Reincarnation, a return to earth life in successive bodies.
Christian ideas about the afterlife include a judgment upon death and an assignment to either Heaven or Hell, depending on one’s merit leading to an indefinite period of existence in a discarnate state that is followed by a resurrection in the body at the time of the second coming of Christ, which is also to lead to the end of the world. Christian ideas heavily influenced 19th-century Spiritualism, although Spiritualist authors, such as Andrew Jackson Davis, mainly elaborated what it was like during the intermediary state. According to Davis, who dictated his lectures in trance, after death human beings continue their spiritual progress through a series of celestial spheres, until they reach the seventh sphere and become one with “the Infinite Vortex of Love and Wisdom and the great Spiritual Sun of the Divine Mind.”
Most traditional societies also have beliefs about what happens to people when they die, although the conception of an afterlife is not always formulated clearly. Sometimes there is a vague belief in continued existence, with little interest or concern in the nature of this existence. In other societies, the afterlife is believed to be structured very similarly to life on earth: there is the same type of social organization, and there is plenty. It was images like this that led to the portrayal of a “Happy Hunting Ground” as the idea of the Native American afterlife. In some societies, existence is believed to continue much in the way as on earth, but in reverse. In communicating with the dead, one says and does the opposite of what one means.
The Land of the Dead is not always located in the heavens. Perhaps even more often, it is located under the earth. The Zulus believe in an underworld, where mountains and rivers and all things are as above. The dead live in villages, and milk their cattle, which are the spirits of the cattle which have been killed on earth. Or, the dead may live on the mountain or in the valley on the surface of the earth. One European in Borneo managed to get native guides to take him to the summit of the mountain said to be the region of the spirits. He was shown the moss on which the spirits fed and footprints of the ghostly buffaloes which followed them, but his guides refused to spend the night there (see also : Kachina; Moon).
In traditional societies, knowledge of the afterlife is said to have been gained from the experiences of shamans, whose primary function is to act as an intermediary between the living and the dead. Shamans may travel to the Land of the Dead in search of souls that have had difficulty getting back to their bodies, either through accident or illness (see Soul Loss). Not infrequently, shamanic teachings are supplemented by accounts of Near Death Experience, in which regular people have their own visionary experiences of the afterlife.
Spiritualism and the animistic belief of tribal societies have in common the beliefs in the possibility of communication between the living and the dead. In animism, ideas about the soul are fairly complicated and vary a great deal from one place to another. Many societies distinguish between the ghost, or the spirit proper (which travels to the land of the dead), and a different part of the spirit, which reincarnates. The ghost part of the spirit is believed to be particularly strong before the main spirit has begun its trip to the Land of the Dead, which may not begin until three or four days after death, and therefore various things are done to facilitate the departure and to discourage the ghost from returning to plague the living (see Funeral Rites and Costums).
The spirits of ancestors may return at special occasions such as after death, however, and on these occasions they are no longer so dangerous (see Feasts and Festivals of the Dead). The Ghost Dance was a special type of Native American festival, in which it was believed that the spirits of the dead would return to lead the way back to the life they had led before the coming of the white man.
- Brown, Slater. The Heyday of Spiritualism. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1970.
- Child, Alice B., with Irvin L. Child. Religion and Magic in the Life of Traditional Peoples. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1993.
- Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.
- Kung, Hans. Eternal Life? Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem. New York: Doubleday, 1984.
- Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1956