Finishing out the discussion of death and the culture surrounding it (at least for now): what happens to a person after they die?
Actually, there are two questions to answer here. One is what people believe happens after you die; the other is what really happens. They may not be the same thing. And you don’t necessarily have to answer the second question — many stories don’t require it — but this being speculative fiction, you can choose to answer it definitively. And for some kinds of stories, you have to.
Roughly speaking, you can break the possibilities for what happens after death into four broad categories.
1) Nothing. When you die, that’s it; you’re gone, and nothing persists afterward. This is generally the position held by atheists, but I’m not aware of any religions with such a belief — I welcome exceptions in the comments!
2) Reincarnation. After you die, your spirit is born again in a new body. Your next life may be affected by your actions in the previous (i.e. your karma), but you may or may not remember anything of that previous life. Many religions that believe in reincarnation also say you get wiped clean of memories in between, as part of the cycle, but some hold that it’s possible to retrieve at least some of those memories. Reincarnation is strongly associated with Asian religions, but various sects within Abrahamic religions have also promoted the idea.
3) Afterlife. Call it Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Sheol, Hades, Elysium, Tartarus, Valhalla, Niflheim, Xibalba, Mictlan, Diyu, Duat, Yomi, or any one of a dozen other names; it’s the resting place of souls after they die. Often there are many possibilities within a single belief system, and where you wind up depends (as above) on your actions in life. But that doesn’t always mean there’s an afterlife for good people and an afterlife for bad ones; sometimes the manner of your death determines where you go, as with Valhalla and Fólkvangr (each of which claimed half of those who in battle) or Tlalocan (which claimed those who died of causes linked to the rain god Tlaloc).
4) Ghosts. Maybe you don’t go anywhere at all: you stay right here on earth, visible all the time or only some of the time, able to interact with the world or not. Often, but not always, ghosts have unfinished business, and when that is resolved, they move on.
Of course you can mix and match these things in various ways, e.g. with ghosts moving on to reincarnation or an afterlife once the reason for their haunting is dealt with, or souls spending some amount of time in an afterlife before they are ready for reincarnation, or foul magics that allow for the possibility that a soul can be utterly destroyed. Some views of nirvana amount to nearly the same thing, but in a positive way, with a soul ceasing to have independent, defined existence when it’s freed from the cycle of rebirth.
Theological discussions will have to wait for a future essay (or more than one); for now, the interesting thing is how these beliefs affect the way people build culture around death. If you believe in ghosts, for example, there will be customs in place to prevent them from lingering, as we saw last week. But where this really kicks in is with belief in reincarnation and the afterlife, because there are all kinds of ways the living can try to assist the dead.
This is one of the reasons grave goods are so widespread of a practice. Whether it’s coins on the eyelids to pay the ferryman across the underworld river or food and tools to use in an afterlife that’s just like this one, people put objects in graves not because they wanted to waste wealth, but because they believed the dead would need those things later. (The wasting of wealth was a real issue, though; that’s why Egyptian religion developed the idea that a tiny model of a thing would be just as good as the thing itself in the underworld.)
You can also help a person spiritually as well as materially, through rituals performed after death. People often pray for the deceased, recite sutras, learn the Torah, etc. in order to lessen their suffering in Hell (whatever name it may go by in the local religion), shorten their time in Purgatory or between lives, or otherwise bestow benefits on them. Doing such things can be a way to accumulate spiritual merit for yourself at the same time — or, if you’re rich, you can pay for somebody else to do it on your behalf, funding a chantry to recite masses for the dead or a scriptorium to copy out sutras.
Other rituals are performed at set times. Japanese Buddhist customs may involve a number of memorial services, e.g. on the seventh, forty-ninth, and hundredth day after death; in Judaism you might unveil the tombstone of the deceased seven or thirty days after the funeral, or on the anniversary. In some cases the timing of such rituals is based on beliefs regarding the soul’s journey through the underworld to judgment, with assistance coming at key moments.
Then, of course, you have the yearly holidays: the Day of the Dead, All Souls’ Day, the Bon Festival or Ghost Festival, Samhain, and so on. Many cultures have believed in a specific time when the worlds of the living and the dead draw closer together, which is a good (or sometimes a necessary) opportunity to honor your deceased relatives. Even without that belief, many countries commemorate the deaths of famous leaders or other beloved public figures, not out of any supernatural belief, but simply because it is a good time to recall their achievements and contributions to society.
And so we head on toward Halloween! Enjoy, if you celebrate it, and next month we’ll turn to some lighter topics.