"At birth we cry; at death we see why."
--Bulgarian proverb

"Birth is the messenger of death."
--Syrian proverb

Like the climatologists who so eagerly awaited the close-up photographs of Jupiter and Saturn in order to understand the atmospheric dynamics of earth, we need cross-cultural comparisons in order to comprehend ourselves. "Death" is a socially constructed idea. The fears, hopes, and orientations people have towards it are not instinctive, but rather are learned from such public symbols as the languages, arts, and religious and funerary rituals of their culture. Every culture has a coherent mortality thesis whose explanations of death are so thoroughly ingrained that they are believed to be right by its members. It is here assumed that any broad-scale change in the relationships between the living is accompanied by modifications of these death meanings and ceremonies. The reverse may well also be true: Would there be a rash of suicides if it were to be conclusively verified scientifically that the hereafter is some celestial Disneyland? And what if the quality of one's experiences there was founded to be based on the quality of one's life?

Annwfn: The Mythology and Folklore of Death from The City of the Silent
H.C. Yarrow's 1881 "Introduction to the Study of Mortuary Customs Among the North American Indians"
Myth in Death and Dying
Euphemisms for Death -- both physical and symbolic (with a dash of humor)


If you were to parachute down into some exotic culture, precisely how would you classify its death ethos (or death system), the entire veil of order and meaning that societies construct against the chaos posed by death? Anthropology provides various strategies. Among the cultural indicators to be the considered would be:

In considering the various facets of death ethos cross-culturally, Arnold Toynbee ("Various Ways in Which Human Beings Have Sought to Reconcile Themselves to the Fact of Death," 1980) and others have developed typologies of orientations toward life and death:

Before getting too carried away with this classification business, it's worth reflecting on the value of the enterprise. Say that we have for each dimension of a cultural death system a set of mutually exclusive and totally exhaustive categories such that each culture can be pigeon-holed into one and only one, what then? So what?

Tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, first to unite China, guarded by at least 8000 warriors The first step might to see how these various categories cluster together. For instance, are there patterns in the way beliefs in an afterlife correlate with cultural/personal orientations toward abortion or euthanasia? Is cultural thanatophia related to cultural gerontophobia-- in other words, do death fears lead to fears of growing old? This question brings us to the second and most important step: how orientations toward death relate to orientations toward life.

At issue is the relationship between a culture's death ethos and its life ethos, the latter described by Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 1973:127) as "the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood; ... the underlying attitude toward themselves and their world that life reflects." For instance, what facets of their death ethos lead the Spanish to disdain the life insurance industry?

Public distaste for life insurance has left the industry in Spain more malnourished than in any other major Western European economy. Only nine of every 100 Spaniards have life insurance, for an estimated annual per capita premium cost of $10.20. That compares to $154 in Western Europe and $230 in the U.S....

Some examples of what insurance sales people must contend with in Spain:

--Ana Westley. 1984. "Spaniards Distaste for Life Insurance Leave the Industry There Languishing."
Wall Street Journal, March 29:28


"The fundamental law of the social order [is] ... the progressive control of life and death."
Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, p.172

A major tradition in the study of death across cultures and time has been to demarcate distinctive death epochs in Western history. The most notable illustration is Philippe Ariès's The Hour of Our Death, wherein developed are five models of death that have succeeded one another of the past millennium:


Factors associated with these changes in cultural death systems include:

In addition to these transformations in the world of the living, the American death ethos also changed because of the following trends in the nature and distribution of death.

For thoughts on role of microbes shaping course of history see Jared Diamond's "Why Did Human History Unfold Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years?"

Michael Bathrick and Charles Niquette's Bibliography of Funeral and Burial Practices (1994)

Yahoo's Society and Culture:Death

The Webster's collection of links to cross-cultural images of death

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Funeral Beliefs in Roslea--a traditional Irish wake

Unbelieveable Events In Bali : Cremation Processing


Given the proximity of the United States to Mexico and the fact that Mexican Americans comprise one of the fastest-growing groups in America, it's worth reflecting on their traditional death ethos and its impact on the American death system.

Poet Octavio Paz writes that Mexicans are "seduced by death." To the American eye, their culture is steeped with morbidity: there's the life-death drama of the bullfight; the Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos observances and folkart, replete with skeletons and bloody crucifixes; the Mummy Museum in Guanajuato; and the pervasive death themes within the works of such muralists as Orozco, Jose Guadalupe Posada,, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. This death-rich cultural tradition reflects the fusion of Indian and Catholic legacies, the former includes the heritage of human sacrifices practiced by the Mayans and Aztecs.

Such phenomena, despite their surface appearances, are not necessarily features of a death-accepting culture. In a country historically marked by unstable, corrupt, authoritarian regimes, it is interesting to note how honoring the dead has given individuals license to comment on the living. There is a satirical magazine that is published in even the smallest hamlet that owns a print shop. This publication, called LA CALAVERA (the skull), is filled with satirical poetic eulogies of living members of the community, ranging from the town drunk to the mayor's wife. The famous skeletal caricatures of Posada served to raise political consciousness in Mexico before the revolution. In sum, it is not simply the case that life is so miserable that death is preferable. In fact, the festive death rituals are neither positive nor negative, but rather "an existential affirmation of the lives and contributions made by all who have existed...(and) the affirmation of life as the means for realizing its promise while preparing to someday die" (Ricardo Sanchez, 1985, "Day of the Dead Is Also about Life," San Antonio Express-News, Nov.1). They reflect not only Mexico's cultural heritage but also its fusion with economic and political exigencies.


Alexis Ciurczak and Jose Rangel's Day of the Dead Page

Ricardo Salvador's "What do Mexicans celebrate on the Day of the Dead?"

Catherine Lavender's "El dia de los muertos" page


In a macro sense, death is the fate of not only humans but of all human creations. See the Annenberg/CPB Project Exhibition Collapse: Why do civilizations fall?


It is when one first sees the horizon as an end that one first begins to see... Ends are the hardest things in the world to see--precisely because they aren't things, they are the ends of things. And yet they are wonderful. What would life be without them!...if we didn't die there would be no works--not works of art certainly, the only ones that count. ...Death is the perspective of every great picture ever painted and the underbeat of every measurable poem...

--Archibald MacLeish

Certainly one realm of indicators of cultural death conceptions is to be found in the arts. Through music, poetry, or paintings of death we see not only conceptions of death but the cultural styles with which the event is anticipated and met. Also revealed is a people's sense of themselves. Art is one sure defense against time, against that dumbfounding piece of information that life has a temporal end.

"The Dance of Death"--artwork and essays by artist Ian Breakwell and anatomist Bernard Moxham to encourage "today's post-modern generation to confront mortality"
The Webster--"Death in Articles, Arts, Literature and Stories" section
Women and Death: an anthrology of women's poetry


The first month of 2006 brought several curious news items. Exhibit 1, on the right, even received coverage in the New York Times.  By playing dead, the website owner "hopes to attain a modest form of immortality."  The website had a third of a million hits in its first three weeks.

Exhibit 2 was carried in the Los Angeles Times: Paula Thomas's "new neo-Gothic" line of skull-covered garments.  Writes Booth Moore, "Sure, skulls are everywhere (on Vans sneakers, on Lucien Pellat-Finet cashmere sweaters and in Luella Bartley's forthcoming line for Target). ... But Thomas' designs are subtle enough to make fans out of the most refined women"
("The name on everyone's hips," Jan. 25, 2006).

Return to Kearl's Death Index