A matter of life and death
Archived article from Nov 9, 2001
By Amy Vames
Death and taxes are the only certainties in life, or so the saying goes, but only one of those inevitabilities is the object of intense human scrutiny. In every known society, death not only produces rituals for dealing with it but prompts humans to try to understand the meaning of life.
Helping college students grapple with such a heavy topic is religion Professor Hiroshi Obayashi, who has taught the course "Death and Afterlife" since the mid-1980s.
The popular course, which regularly enrolls some 300 students a semester, looks at a variety of views, rituals and practices associated with death and the afterlife beginning with primitive peoples, through ancient and classical cultures, and into the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. The focus then shifts from Middle Eastern and European cultures to those in the East, particularly as reflected in Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.
"My main goal in the course is to help students see the common themes underlying questions of death and afterlife, and to capture and highlight the differences in those questions," Obayashi says.
A central difference between Western and Eastern outlooks is the meaning of an individual life in this world. In Western traditions, the significance of a single life is determined by the impact that individual has on others or on society at large. "The self is always firmly planted in this historical drama," says Obayashi. "'What am I good for?' one asks. Westerners look at death more as an assault on and the denial of life."
Eastern philosophy, in contrast, puts the individual in a grander context. One's personal life is insignificant when compared with the rest of the universe. "The Eastern philosophy puts death into much more positive language. Upon dying, an individual becomes a part of the whole; death is simply a link in the process of rebirth and reincarnation," Obayashi explains.
Despite this dichotomy, for all cultures, death is a tragic disruption to a community. "Death is not only deeply tragic to people as the negation of life of a dear one, it is also disruptive to the ongoing rhythm of the society," writes Obayashi in "Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions," a book he edited and uses as the course text. "Thus the socially disruptive effect of death is sought to be softened by proper funerals and ensuing rituals by translating death itself into a continued form of life."