Some readers have asked that we take a look at various religions to see what wisdom they have to offer with respect to death and dying. It’s a tall order, but we’ve been building up our library in that department.
Recently, I’ve been reading How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife, second edition (1998), edited by Christopher Jay Johnson and Marsha G. McGee. The book appears to be out of print, but used copies are readily available online for a few dollars. The editors have pulled together experts on various Christian denominations and world religions, including Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, to summarize their history and main tenets and delve into their positions on death and the afterlife. The chapters also examine practices with respect to disposal of the body and mourning.
The book is informative, but I have to say that when it comes to theology and doctrine, I didn’t find a great deal here that would offer insight to a modern person. The exception might be found in the chapter on Unitarian Universalism, in which George N. Marshall states that “Unitarian Universalists accept a scientific view of life and see life as lived in the here and now rather than in the hereafter.”
Concepts offered in other chapters, such as paradise, heaven, hell, reincarnation, purgatory, limbo, and bodily resurrection on the eve of the thousand year reign of Jesus, are not something that many of us, in this day and age, are going to able to accept. If we believe in the soul, or that we’ll be with our loved ones when we die, it’s likely to be only in a metaphorical sense.
Some of the contributors recognize the problem. William L. Hendricks, the late Southern Baptist theologian, after taking a look at the belief that Christians will escape death through resurrection in the end times, writes that:
“It is my experience that geriatric persons do not take too seriously the apocalyptic escape clause. Aging persons, by and large, are not planning on getting out of life alive. Via the routes of pain and problems, many have come with firm faith to look upon death as a friend and even a welcome relief.” Hendricks suggests that it is often the “young and over-achieving middle-aged” who are most concerned with “getting out without death.”
The flashes of understanding that bedeck this book may be its most valuable aspect. We learn, for example, that according to Quaker William Penn,
“This is the comfort of Friends, that though they may be said to Die,
Yet their friendship and Society, are, in the best Sense, ever present,
Amen to that.
Some of the practices described in this book for the time of dying and after death also have great appeal. Among Buddhists, “while the dying person can still relate to others, family members and friends are advised to bid the person farewell. Ideally this is done without tears or drama, so as not to cause excessive regret or longing in the dying person.” Among Jews, “The saying of the Kaddish prayer is an essential part of the mourning experience. This famous prayer is distinctive because of its rhythmic cadence and its use of Aramaic language instead of the customary Hebrew…. In practice, the prayer amounts to a virtual petition or intercession for the welfare of the deceased.”
I wish Johnson and McGee had persuaded an Episcopalian to contribute to their volume. What could be more beautiful than these words from the Episcopal burial service?
“You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we
return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying,
‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down
to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia,