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There is a certain sequence to life. We are born, we die and the part in the middle is called life. Everyone must die and every religion in the world seems to have a belief about what happens after death.
We can die at any age be it by accident, illness, disease or old age. Unfortunately accidents and disease are quite common and cause much more distress to loved ones than if someone dies of old age. This is because of the order of death which we expect. Most people believe that Grandparents should die first, followed by Parents then finally Children. However, the world does not always work this way, spawning the phrase ‘a parent should never have to bury their child’. Accidents can strike someone down at anytime as can illness. When this happens it is usually a shock and the grief caused by this can be dependent on the age – if a younger person dies then the shock can be devastating but if someone dies in their ‘twilight years’ then the shock is greatly reduced as the family is half expecting it and they have led a full life.
When someone dies, people cope with it in different ways. Some people cry and sob while others will quietly sit and contemplate. In other instances, people will go into denial and refuse to believe that their loved one is gone. This type of denial is aided by the fact that we do not have to deal with death directly, more often than not we will arrange for a funeral director to plan and take care off everything. Many people tell their loved ones how they feel everyday, this allows them to be secure in that their loved one will not die without them knowing they love them. People do not like for someone to die if they have not told them all that they should have or have ended their last conversation in an argument. They begin to have that underlying feeling of guilt and foreboding.
To know that someone knows what you are going through is a great help to the bereaved, friends can come over and offer their support and allow the person to explain how they feel. The whole idea of talking to someone is the basis of therapy and can offer some relief through sympathy/empathy. Funerals, after they have been arranged are often held within the week of the person dying. This is to offer some finality to the whole process and to let the relatives to decide whether they want an ‘open coffin’ or ‘closed coffin’ funeral.
Funerals vary from one Christian denomination to another but they all have a glimmer of hope in them for the relatives and friends. The hope of eternal life in the presence of God allows the church to help the bereaved deal with their loss by encouraging them to believe that they will be reunited with them after they die.
In a funeral, the coffin is carried from its method of transport to the church (this is usually a hearse, but can be a horse-drawn carriage) by the pall-bearers. These are often the male members of the family who were closest to the deceased.
I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who
believes in Me will live, even though he dies;
and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
The above verses from John 11 are often read. These words are used to comfort the bereaved as they speak of eternal life and love. There are also often hymns, prayers for the person who has died and other Bible readings. The priest will then give a short sermon on the Christian beliefs of life after death. Eulogies are also often read out by a member of the family or a close friend. A eulogy is a short speech about the life of the person who has died. It is traditional to wear black clothing at funerals. This is not required however and some families will request that guests do not dress in this way. A Roman Catholic funeral also includes a ‘Requiem Mass’. For this, the priest will wear white vestments and the coffin will be covered in a white pall. The coffin is sprinkled with Holy Water and the priest says:
In the waters of baptism (name) died with Christ,
and rose with him to new life. May s/he now
share with him in eternal glory.
The coffin is then sprinkled again and later perfumed with incense. After the funeral, many Christians put on a meal for guests to thank them for coming. In the case of Roman Catholics and many Irish Christians, a wake will be put on. A wake is a small, lively party to celebrate the persons passing into Heaven and their life.
Of course, the person who all this was held for does not realise. The deceased person is not really there and only an empty shell remains. There are several different, but equally important reasons for holding a funeral. A funeral marks the ending of a human life, as baptism marks the beginning. It also allows the families to go through the various stages of grief. A funeral lets them see that the person is gone forever, but gives them comfort and support from faith. A funeral is used by Christians to be reminded of one of Christianity’s main beliefs – there is life after death and that God will give us strength to face up to our sorrow.
Graves are also often erected. These graves are permanent markers to the person and can last hundreds of years. It is very interesting to walk around a cemetery and see the impact someone has made on another persons life as some graves have monumental tombstones on them. These come at a huge price and it is amazing to see that someone has paid so much money for something the deceased will never see
In Christian terms, there are two places after you die, Heaven and Hell. There is much debate about whether Heaven and Hell are actual places. The Literalists believe it is as the bible clearly mentions it in the New Testament. According to older theories, Heaven is a place where those who are sinless go to be with God and everyone is happy. On the other hand, Hell was meant to be a place of ‘fire and brimstone’ where everyone suffered for their sins. Now here is where the argument comes in. Many people say that Hell cannot exist because it is impossible for such a loving and forgiving God to create a place of suffering. Some Christians also believe that Heaven and Hell are not so much places as states of mind. Heaven is where you are at peace and can be with God and Hell is where you are confined and isolated from the warmth of God’s love.
A modern story of the literal differences between Heaven and Hell goes as follows:
A man dies and is greeted by St. Peter at the gates of Heaven. The man asks if he can see both Heaven and Hell before he is judged. St. Peter agrees and an angel escorts the man into a room. In the room, there is a long dining table. The man asks where they are and the angel tells him that they are in Hell. He explains that in both Heaven and Hell, you are treated equally and can eat all your favorite foods from the table on one condition: you must eat them with 6 foot long utensils. The man ponders on this for a moment then asks what the difference is between the two. The angel tells him that in Heaven, people are well fed as they feed one another while the people in Hell starve as they only try to feed themselves and fail.
In Christian beliefs about resurrection, the idea that the whole body is resurrected, not just the soul is prominent. Jesus was recognised by St. Peter after his resurrection (see Corinthians 15:35-57), this shows us that when we are resurrected, our new bodies will be recognisable to our family and friends.
Jewish beliefs about death are not so different from those of Christianity. Instead of Heaven and Hell, Jews believe that all souls go to ‘Sheol’, a shadowy underworld. The Jewish faith also has beliefs on resurrection. According to Maimonides, when the Messiah comes, all the dead will be resurrected and judged.
In death, every member of the family is affected. Adults know what is going on, but what about the children. What should we tell them? Many parents explain to their children that whoever has died has ‘gone with the angels’. This is often the easiest way as children associate angels with happiness. This reasoning is often why people grow up imagining Heaven to be in the clouds above our Earth and full of angels, it is a remnant of our childhood. However, some parents decide to not tell their children anything. It all depends on the individual child and how they will cope with this new information. Some children can cope with the hard evidence – someone has died and isn’t going to come back, while others cannot grasp the concept of death until they are much older.
All religions have theories on life and death. In the New Age religions, many people believe in the Gaia theory. The Gaia theory was developed many hundreds of years ago and can be found in old texts about the meaning of life. The Gaia theory tells us that the Earth on which we live has a spirit and that all living organisms have their spirit given by Gaia (the Earth spirit). These organisms live their respective lives and ‘soak’ up their experiences to enrich its spirit. When the organism dies, its spirit returns to Gaia and the experiences it had allow Gaia to create new lives.
After looking at several different religions, it is apparent that all have one thing in common – the belief that after you die a part of you lives on and returns to something, be it Allah, Gaia or God.