Since the beginning of humankind, death has always been a constant subject that concerned every civilization in different parts of the world. Every great civilization that we know of had its own history of costumes and traditions about death.
And from a historical perspective, if we talk about death we can’t, of course, not talk about religion too. The bound between these two subjects is so strong and so deep-rooted in every civilization culture that it has a millennial history.
This lead to the creation of various belief and myth about death. Some examples are the concepts of resurrection or the afterlife (Usually associated with Abrahamic religions), of reincarnation or rebirth (associated with Dharmic religions), or of the permanently obliteration of consciousness, known as eternal oblivion (associated with atheism).
In any case, it is very easy to see how different every culture is from one another when we talk about death.
For example, to the ancient Egyptians death was not the end of life but the beginning of a new journey which they thought it was eternal and, in fact, they didn’t intend death as we usually do.
Instead, for them, it was a transition to another life. It is also known between scholars the modern Egyptian Arabic word for death, “al mawt”, is the same as ancient Egyptian word and is also used for “mother”: In terms of meaning, there is an evident correlation between death-experience and birth, or more precisely re-birth.
But what about the Egyptian funerary rituals? How did they take care of their deads? Well, it was definitely an elaborate system formed by various funerary practices applied in order to ensure their immortality after death. Some of these rituals and protocols included casting magic spells, mummifying the body as to delay or prevent decay for its journey to the afterlife, using some special coffin called sarcophagus and burial with specific grave goods thought to be needed in the afterlife.
As we can see the constant focus of these practices are indeed fundamental towards eternal life and the certainty of another life beyond death. This belief became definitely well-known in the ancient world via cultural transmission because of trade (By the way of the Silk Road) and came to influence other civilizations and religions. We suppose that it could have served as an inspiration for the Christian vision of heaven and as a major influence on burial practices in other cultures.
However, it is certainly remarkable the fact that if we compare this kind of view with other views of any ancient civilization, Egyptian philosophy about death was the most comforting. However, people still feared death.
Another important and well-known example is for sure the Greek civilization. By the Sixth century B.C. their conception of the afterlife and their rituals about death were already very well established. They believed that when someone dies the psyche, or spirit of the dead, let the body as a physical form. After this, the deceased was prepared for a proper burial and its omission was considered an insult to human dignity itself. Their elaborated rituals were usually conducted by women and it was composed of three parts: The “prothesis”, or the laying out of the body. In this part, the body was washed and it was anointed with oil and after that, the body was dressed and placed in a high bed within the house for relatives and friends to mourn and pay their respect to the deceased. After the prothesis, there was the “ekphora”, or the funeral procession where the deceased was brought to the cemetery in a procession usually before dawn. In the end, there was the interment of the body or the cremation of the deceased. Usually, some funerary monuments were erected in order to not forget the dead.
The relation between death and the Romans was similar to the one between death and the Greeks. And even in this case, the Roman funeral was an important rite of passage that defined the transition between life and death. For that very reason, it was fundamental to conduct the proper ceremonies and burial in order to avoid having a malicious spirit rising from the underworld. In this case, a Roman funeral is more complex than the Greek one. A Roman funeral was composed of five parts: A procession, cremation and burial, eulogy, feast, and commemoration.
The funeral procession was definitely more showy and louder. Professional mourners were paid in order to wail loudly and “literally rip out their hair and scratch their faces in mourning” as Steven Fife says in the article “The Roman Funeral”. By the way, a large number of professional mourners meant that the mourned was wealthy and powerful in life. The corpse was carried in a bier (a bed-like tray) followed by the family of the deceased.
After the procession, the body was brought to the necropolis and cremated, upon a funeral pyre the ashes and remaining fragments were put in a funerary urn. It was believed that until the body was interred, the spirit had not crossed the River Styx yet, the river that takes one from the World of the Living to the World of the Dead. Inhumation (or burial) eventually took over as the preferred method. The body would be placed inside a massive and decorated coffin, called sarcophagus, which was often massive and richly decorated.
But in the end, a funeral was complete only if a ritual feast was held at the end of it. The funeral was the final marker that told the deceased that he/she could continue on to the underworld and the family would be able to move forward.
The last part was the commemoration. Once the body was buried or cremated, the deceased still had to be remembered to respect his soul. In certain days, the Roman state set various occasion to remember loved ones. An example was the Parentalia, held from February 13 to 21, to honor the family\'s ancestors. The Romans also believed that if the deceased’s family gathered around his/her tomb and made an offering, this would placate the spirit, and that it would stop floating around the underworld with no memory of its existence.
We have talked a lot about death and about how ancient civilizations related and thought about it. But before we continue let’s formally define what death is by giving a scientific definition. Scientifically speaking, death is the permanent and irreversible cessation of all vital functions of a living organism which, in most cases, shortly after death, leads the bodies of those living organisms to decomposition.
From a social point of view, the death of human beings is usually something considered painful and unpleasant, due to the bound of affection between the being that has died and its relatives and friends. That leads to a termination of familiar and social bonds with the deceased and this cannot do anything else but to bring sadness and despair.
As we have seen, death has been a constant and an unavoidable concern in the ancient world and so it will always be. Its nature and the awareness of humanity’s mortality has been a subject of studies for the world’s religious traditions and for philosophers and school of thought, but it doesn’t stop there. As history shows, another ubiquitous subject is the fear of death. In fact, humanity has always tried to delay or to avoid death in every possible way: By improving life conditions, by fighting off mortal diseases, by engineered better ways to deal with natural disasters and so on. The more society and science progress, the more ways we find to try to fight death.
For example, we are studying some ways to extend the average human lifespan by slowing down or reversing the processes of aging. This is called life extension. The results could be either modest, by bring effective improvements in medicine, or substantial, by increasing the maximum lifespan beyond its natural limit. However, it’s currently impossible to achieve such a considerable result.
Infant and child mortality, caused by nutrition problems and infectious disease, definitely lowers the average lifespan. Vulnerability to accidents and age-related chronic disease (Cancer or cardiovascular disease) play a important role in mortality. Improved medical care, vaccinations, good diet, exercise and avoidance of hazards such as smoking, alcohol, can extend the expected lifespan.
The researchers that works in this area usually called \"life extensionists\", \"immortalists\" or \"longevists\". They, believe that in the future, discoveries in some game-changing medicine fields such as tissue rejuvenation, stem cells, regenerative medicine, molecular repair, gene therapy, pharmaceuticals, and organ replacement (such as with artificial organs or xenotransplantations) will eventually permits to humans to have indefinite lifespans (agerasia) through complete rejuvenation to a healthy youthful condition. If this became possible, it would raise ethical concerns about what this could bring into our society and how it could transform medicine, science and humanity’s conception of life. But since this is a bio-ethical problem we won’t treat this.
Many efforts are being made in research about life extension strategies in various organism by various academic and private institutions.
For example, the most hypothetical and futuristic research that it is being made is called the mind uploading. This consists in “eliminating” some of the complications related to a physical body, by transferring or “uploading” a conscious mind from a biological brain to a non-biological computer system. Theoretically, the idea behind this is to deeply scan the structure of a particular brain and then construct a software which runs on the apposite hardware, that can then behave just like the original brain. this can be achieved by progressively replacing neurons with transistors. We can also think about some sort of “software resurrection” through simulation technology of deceased people.
Another example is nanotechnology. The advancements made in nanomedicine could rise life expectancy by repair many processes thought to be responsible for aging. There are various ideas that sustain this thesis. For instance, cell repair machines including ones operating within cells and utilizing as yet hypothetical molecular computers is one of them. This was postulated by K. Eric Drexler, one of the founders of nanotechnology.
Last but not least, cloning and body part replacement could reveal itself as another good strategy in order to extend the average human lifespan. In future, therapeutic cloning and stem cell research could lead to generate single cells or even entire bodies that would conserve the original genetic heritage. Supporters of body part replacement and cloning claim that the required biotechnologies are likely to appear earlier than other life-extension technologies.
In the end, only the future will say if we ever could dramatically extend the average human lifespan. Invest into research is definitely a good point of start in order to reach that objective. Cooperation between diverse scientific fields of research is also fundamental.
Aside from private initiatives, aging research is being conducted in university laboratories. University researchers have made a number of breakthroughs in extending the lives of some animals such as mice and insects by reversing certain aspects of aging and that’s definitely a great hope that could lead humanity to even a brighter future.