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The Meaning of Death: Scientific and Religious

The presentation for February 10th included information on the meaning of life as well as a definition of death through a legal and medical criterion. The last three presenters discussed the views of death according to Judaism, Buddhism, and Voodoo religions.

The main points discussed on the related to the meaning of death being different for each person, culture and religion. These 5 different points are as follows:


    1. Conceptions of death will influence the individual orientation toward seeking an end to life. When it becomes painful or burdensome.
    2. Advancements in technology have lead to more ethical dilemmas when determining death.
    3. Hollywood and television have altered the conception of voodoo, but people who practice it have very distinct opinions about death.
    4. There are many different religions and belief systems across the world. Each, including Judaism, holds an individual view of death and mourning.
    5. For Hindus, death represents a spiritual opportunity to attain oneness with God. Death is a component of the natural life cycle - life, death and rebirth.

Jan Carter Section:


Because there was a mention of the importance of the definition of life, I, Jan Carter, took the meanings of life and death out of various dictionaries and compared them. I didn’t receive any questions however one person was confused about the meaning of death as an enfeebled form. For clarity I gave them the page number in the book so they could read the passage of death on an enfeebled form

The material used for this portion of the presentation concerned the meaning of death and defining death and life were collected from the class textbooks, the internet, American Random House College Dictionary, Black’s Law Dictionary and Webster’s.



A. Meanings that have been given to death:

-Death is an enfeeble form of life

-Death is a continuation of life

-Death is perpetual development

-Death is waiting


II. Death is cycling and recycling


III. Death is an enfeebled form of life:

A. Common in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago and states that the deceased person is gradually submerged into the underworld


IV. Death is a continuation of life

  1. Tribal societies view death as a state that has much in common with life
  2. Life is a hazardous journey even after death
  3. Life after death also includes the risk of death
  4. (For EG) Dayak of Borneo believe the soul returns to earth after its 7th death thus entering a mushroom or fruit near the village. The returned soul invades the body of a woman who eats it and one is reborn. If an animal eats it 1st then the soul is reborn as an animal losing human identity.

V. Death is perpetual development

  1. Derived from the prophets and philosophers of evolution
  2. Philosophers Samuel Alexander and Lloyd Morgan built on Darwin’s discoveries of the evolution of species by suggesting that evolution applies to the universe as a whole.
  1. Life itself, is an emergent quality from a universe that continues to transform itself
  2. Mind is a further quality that has emerged from life

1. The relationship between life and death continue to evolve

2. Continuing development for both individual minds and universe at large.


VI. Death is waiting

A. "After a death event… We wait!"

1. In Western Society, the waiting process includes three phases:

    1. period suspended animation in which the person is presumed to exist in sleeplike state
    2. Dramatic Day of Judgement
    3. Soul proceeds to ultimate destination or condition
    4. These three phases have been given different priority depending on particular individuals and societies
VII. Death is cycling and recycling A. Often expressed by children and says that death comes and goes, wending in and out of life.

B. Adults, according to this view, regard death as a temporary condition that alternates with life and represents transition between one form of life and another..


Mike Poynter Section:


This portion of the presentation consisted with a description of the brain layout, medical ethics, and a brief discussion and living wills. Research for this portion came from our textbooks and the internet.

When determining death controversy exist as to when you actually are dead. Some argue you are dead when your higher brain function cease while others argue when the whole brain ceases. In this section of the presentation I discussed the more primitive areas of the brain that function after the higher cognitive functions cease.

The hindbrain and midbrain together form the brainstem. The brain stem serves as a complex relay station for messages traveling up and down the spinal cord. Centers in the brain stem and just above it where it joins the forebrain are the most primitive parts of the brain which control the critical functions such as breathing and temperature regulation as well as basic emotional responses.

The hindbrain consists of the medulla, the pons, and the cerebellum. The medulla controls important involuntary functions such as breathing, heartbeat and digestion. Several cranial nerves enter the brain at this point. Other cranial nerves enter the pons, which is a way station for neural pathways going to other brain areas. The cerebellum is in charge of equilibrium, muscle tone and regulation of coordinated movements. The midbrain is the primary area for processing sensory information from the eyes and ears.

In order to be declared brain dead, the patient must have sustained irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem. Patients with religious objections to brain death can only be declared dead under the traditional criteria of irreversible loss of heartbeat and breathing. Transplant surgeons may not declare brain death. Physicians and nurses who declare death in accordance with the law may not be sued or prosecuted.

Modern medicine has the ability to prolong life long after certain normal functions have ceased. Patients who have become "brain dead" can be kept alive by machines that have been developed to restart hearts, refill lungs with air and even provide them with artificial feedings and so on. Patients who are in the terminal stages of an often painful illness are sometimes given what some consider "heroic" treatments such as attempts to restart hearts when they fail. Modern medical technologies have created ethical dilemmas that never existed before.

Codes of medical ethics are as old as the healing profession itself, dating at least to the time of the Hippocratic Oath, around 400 B.C. Until the late 20th century the prime responsibility rested with physicians, patients and their families, but advances in medicine and technology have raised troublesome issues that transcend the physician's technical expertise, such as the right to die. Accelerating costs have raised new questions about how treatment should be financed and who should receive it.

To guide them with difficult decisions, people are turning more and more to medical ethicist, who are helping to draw ground rules to govern new and rapidly changing technological capabilities. Members of this profession are developing the medical standards by which most Americans will live and die.

Ethicist come from a variety of backgrounds. Most have been trained as philosophers, clergymen or lawyers, and most are affiliated with hospitals or medical schools. Some receive consulting fees on a case-by-case basis, while others see it as a mission. Some of the institutions they work for are financed directly by medical schools or hospitals.

Many hospitals have ethics committees, consisting of doctors, lawyers, clergymen, nurses, technicians, administrators and laymen who advise on specific cases and draft hospital policies.

As treatments continually change and the possibilities of extending life grow, the questions arise about the quality of life that will be extended. Many people are finding that the side effects of treatment may outweigh the benefits in influencing them as to whether they want to continue it. But then questions can arise as to whose decision it is to make regarding what treatment can be given.

A living will is a possible solution to many ethical problems. This document allows you to take some control over your own death. A living will is a relatively new legal document which has been made necessary by the advent of recent technological advances in the field of medicine which can allow for the continued existence of a person on advanced "life support" systems long after any normal semblance of "life," as many people consider it, has ceased.

A living will provides a written declaration for an individual to make known his or her on life-prolonging procedures. It declares your wishes not to be kept alive by artificial or mechanical means if you lie suffering from a terminal condition and your death would be imminent without the use of such artificial means. It provides a set of instructions regarding your wishes about this important matter.

You must be at least 19 years of age in most states before you can make a living will. The state of Kentucky believes at the age of 18 you are an adult and are able to make the decision of making a living will. In all states you must be of "sound mind" and able to comprehend the nature of your action in signing such a document.

You should assemble three witnesses and a Notary Public to witness Your signature. These witness should have no connection with you from a health care or beneficiary standpoint. In front of the witnesses you must say "The each of you witness my signature." After you and all witnesses have signed the document, the final step is for the Notary Public to sign in the space indicated. When this step is completed, your living will is a valid legal document.

Make several copies of your living will. If appropriate, deliver a copy to your physician to have placed in your medical records file. You may also desire to give a copy to the person you have chosen as the executor of your will, a copy to your clergy, and a copy to your spouse or other trusted relative.

As a final note on my portion of the presentation I would like to state that all questions directed to me by the class were answered on the Listserv. I tried to answer any questions about the living wills and even did some additional research inorder to answer a few. Perhaps the most common question was: Are Living Wills popular among other cultures other than the U.S. After additional research I responded with: Living Wills were just formed in 1968 in the U.S. so they are still relatively new to us. Britain over the past few years has debated if they are legal or not. It seems some people there, like the U.S, are deciding to have a Living Will. Three Canadian provinces, Nova Scotia, Singapore and there is also a Jewish Living Will. I am sure there are more that I didn't see when surfing the net. I feel that I made a good effort in answering the questions.


Amy Teeple Section:


Hinduism and Death OVERVIEW Reincarnation- the natural process of birth, death and rebirth -At death, Hindus drop off the physical body and continue evolving in the inner worlds in heir subtle bodies. Karma- the natural law of the mind, just as gravity is the law of matter.

-literally means act or deed.

-the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction, which governs all life. Free will- Hindus believe that man creates his own destiny. So, actions on Earth in this life determine reactions or where he will be placed in the future.


How do people feel about death?—

-Hindus don’t fear death.

-They look upon death as a spiritual opportunity.

-embrace death because it’s part of the natural cycle of life.

-The path leads to perfect oneness with God.


Is death an individual experience?—

-a Hindu focuses on the mantra, strives to be in the highest state of consciousness,

concentrating on the top of the head and holding to lofty thoughts as he succumbs.

-family and friends strive to be with the Hindu, to support and surround with love,

often chanting the mantra softly.


When death is near (preparation)---

-"a Hindu approaching death works diligently to finish all his business of this lifetime."

-goes around to friends and enemies.

-gives love, help and blessings, resolving conflicts or differences, offering apologies and fulfilling obligations.

-That done, he turns to God, reads scriptures, attends temple and amplifies meditation and devotion.


During death---

-person placed in entryway of home, head facing east, lamp is lit near head, concentrates on the mantra.

-mantra chanted into right ear (if unconscious)

-holy ash or sandal paste applied to forehead, milk trickled into mouth.


After Death- body turned so that head is facing south., body placed on cot or the ground,

as close to Mother Earth as possible.

-lamp is kept burning, incense is burned.

-cloth tied around head, holding mouth closed. Thumbs tied together, big toes tied together.

-religious pictures turned toward wall.

-family sings sacred songs.


Medical aspects----

-Hindus want to die at home.

-No hospitals if possible.

-If necessary, Hindu goes to hospital, but returns home A.S.A.P. after death.

-because conscious death is ideal, no drugs, life extensions.

-under no conditions should the body be embalmed or organs removed for donation.


Suicide--- -Hindus should not commit suicide, because it only postpones and intensifies the karma one seeks escape from, requiring several lives to return to the evolutionary point that existed at the moment of suicide. -If terminally ill, tradition does allow self-willed religious death by fasting.


Kimberly Martin Section:


For my part of the presentation, I discussed the voodoo religion, and its specific views about death. Most of the information gathered on this topic was from the internet. It is important to give a bit of background information regarding the religion. Although we believe voodo to be some mystical, crazy, witch doctor religion – more than 50 million people worldwide participate in, or practice the religion. Widely practiced in Haiti (the place of its birth), voodoo has migrated with the Haitian people to other parts of the world, with particularly strong communities in New Orleans, Miami, and New York City.

The term voodoo is actually the "westernized" name for the religion of hoodo, or vodun. The African tribe of the Yoruba had to alter their personal beliefs when the French settlers came into their land and their homes. The voodoo that is practiced today is different from the voodoo practiced 200 years ago. The Yoruba were not allowed to worship the snake, or dance during their death rituals, or chant to their many gods. The French settlers were Catholic, and thought that these strange practices were a form of devil worship, and banned the Haitians from further practice of their beliefs. But, the religion was not to be killed, it was simply altered, and disguised from the French. Therefore, the voodoo religion became a product of the slave trade.

Voodoo belief does not consider death to be a cessation of life, rather, in death, activities are simple changed from one condition to another. Death is perceived as a celebration for the living, with much dancing, and large parties, with much food and drinking.

The body of the dead person goes through a preparation process. The corpse’s nostrils and ears are stuffed with cotton, and the knees and big toes are tied together. The mouth is also tied shut, and the pockets are turned inside out. During this ritual, the houngan, or sort of priest, sprays kleren to the four cardinal directions and then over the corpse to cleanse it. He shakes his asson over the corpse and lights candles. He whispers the deceased’s names into the dead body’s ear.

Also during this ritual, animal sacrifices are made. I corrolated this practice to the animal sacrificing one hears about from the Christian religion. Although they may not still practice these sacrifices, there is past evidence of this in The Bible.

Once the dead body has undergone this process, the soul splits up into two separate parts. One part of the soul goes back into the earth- the energy of life. The other part of the soul remains on the earth for a period of time. This part of the soul is often placed into glass jars to be kept by living family members. In voodoo, the family believes that they can still communicate with the dead person through these jars. In a way, they think that the dead person has now, through death, become a sort of god. They go to them for guidance and personal protection while still here on earth.

It is extremely important to note that within all of the research I found concerning the religion, all were upset with Hollywood and television for misconstruing their beliefs. They think that Hollywood has taken all of the "bizarre" aspects of their religion, and transformed them to be perceived as evil.

Furthermore, many of the articles warned against the danger of trying to practice any of these rituals if one is not a practicing voodo. They fear that the souls of the dead will become trapped here on earth, and haunt the living-they call these spirits, zombies. I also think that this fear is the reason why much of the information was not detailed. For fear that uneducated people would try to meddle in things they don’t know much about.


Jessica Bell Section:

Orthodox Judaism has many rituals surrounding death, the dead body and mourning. In sum, the entire process is based upon respect for the dead and the body. Almost every ritual is performed with that one motivation.

Life, Death, Care for the Dead, Mourning and the Kaddish

Jessica S. Bell

"Man's days are as grass; he blossoms like a flower of the field. For the wind passes over it and it is gone, and its place knows it no more."






  Care for the Dead







Why, then, is Kaddish recited by mourners?



Group Comments:

One main criticism of our group presentation was that the topics of the first presenters did not relate to the discussion of religion and death. We may have failed to make clear that, as you know, our presentations were once separate topics and we were encouraged to present together anyway. Mike Poynter addressed the concern about any differences in the subject matter by posting a response to the Listserv. As for the comments regarding the presenters of religion, there was criticism of the manner in which several of us delivered our information- most pointedly the presenters who chose to sit. Our response to those critics is that we felt most comfortable that way and it seemed only logical that when we were most comfortable that we could convey our information in the most effective way. The other main compalint was that we should have had more overheads. We can now see that this may be true, but in the cases with religion, it would be hard to categorize facts and place them under headings. Much of the information was singular in that it addressed one issue that did not relate to any other- that is why we used minimal overheads.

Overall we feel that the presentation went well and that each member did an excellent job at researching their portion. We also feel that we provided the class with information they may not have learned otherwise. There was a geniune interest what we talked about according the the responses we received. We are left feeling like we provide a good service to the class.