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Understanding Death through Religion

Updated on January 26, 2009
An artists rendering of the Christian heaven.
An artists rendering of the Christian heaven.

Defining and Understanding Death through Religion


Facing death – one’s own or that of a loved one - is a difficult task for anyone, but some factors may influence how straightforward or demanding that task may be. Most common wisdom says that the early myths – Greek and Roman – were the way the people of the time explained seemingly mysterious aspects of life, and most especially death; the same seems to be true of today’s religions.

Contemporary religions have a lot to say about death, and nearly all believe that there is something beyond this earthly life, be it reincarnation, heaven and hell, or an absorption into the ultimate reality. Because religions often focus a significant portion of their doctrine on the afterlife – what it entails and how to get the desired result – it makes sense that whether or not a person is religious, which religion he/she practices, and how devout he/she is will have a substantial effect on attitudes about, coping strategies for, and adjustment to both his/her own death and, especially, the death of loved ones. There have been several articles about how several of the major contemporary religions deal with death as well as studies about whether or not those who are religious cope differently and/or better with impending or recent death.

Since each of the major religions have discrete opinions about what death in this life means, it seems prudent to discuss, briefly, the way Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism define death and what comes after. Also included is the humanist, or secular, view of death for comparison purposes, as it is the belief structure to which most researchers are referring when they discuss those who are not religious.

While there are certainly myriad more religions thriving in the world, a glance at the major ones provides a guide for understanding why studies have been done regarding the mitigating effects of religion on death obsession, death depression, death anxiety, patterns of coping with death, and continued attachment to deceased loved ones.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam


The three major monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – not only share much of the background for their faith, but much of their doctrine regarding end-of-life care (Benore & Park, 2004, Dorff, 2005, and Sachedina, 2005). 

It seems that the conservative branches of each faith often have more in common with each other than with the more liberal branches of their own faith.  Each of the three has myriad offshoots, many with radically different admonitions regarding the way this life ought to be led, but they also have much in common: they all believe in an afterlife of some kind (Jewish people are waiting for the Messiah who will open the gates to Heaven, while Christians and Muslims believe that Heaven and Hell have already been opened) and that God endowed each person with their body and should respect it as such.

For all three, outright suicide is out of the question and other topics – autopsies, cessation of life support, and measures to preserve life – are touchy, but the consensus seems to be that a person should listen to his/her religious leaders and maintain the integrity of his/her body (Benore & Park, 2004, Dorff, 2005, and Sachedina, 2005), and all allow – at least in some cases – life support to be removed when it would simply prolong the dying process instead of prolonging life (Benore & Park, 2004, Dorff, 2005, and Sachedina, 2005), though Islam is more strict in its overall allowance for such measures (Sachedina, 2005).    


Buddhism and Hinduism


Buddhism has a lot to say about death and what comes after, and while not all of it is markedly different from the monotheistic religions, it is overall more flexible in its doctrine than nearly all other religions.  Specific and strict requirements for Buddhists are rare, with leaders counseling their followers to listen to their conscience, the teachings of the wise, and to use their own reasoning abilities in making all dubious decisions (Keown, 2005).  Buddhists believe in reincarnation: once a person dies on this earth, he/she will be reborn to a new life here and the status of that life depends on the work he/she did before his/her previous death.  Due to this belief, Buddhists are desirous of having a clear mind always, and this is especially true at death; it is the reason why meditation is emphasized and why many Buddhists are reluctant to take strong sedatives when near death (Keown, 2005).Buddhism does not require the maintenance of life support, but does not condone euthanasia, and certainly not suicide, though there is little complete agreement among Buddhist scholars about when precisely, certain life support measures should be removed (Keown, 2005). 


Hinduism is a term that envelops several very similar belief systems originating from the Indus area, so there is not a central institution or doctrine similar to those that exist for the other major religions (Firth, 2005).  Common strands of belief emerge in the strong desire for a good death, defined as occurring at an appropriate time – usually old age – when the person is conscious of what is happening and therefore prepared to die, so that they may have their mind on God as they pass (Firth, 2005).  Because the way a person dies is believed to influence his/her rebirth, as Hindus believe in multiple reincarnations before reaching the state of Nirvana when they are absorbed into Brahman (the ultimate reality), it is especially important for family members to know about a person’s medical status so that they may prepare themselves and the patient for death (Firth, 2005).  As with the other religions discussed, Hinduism inherently disagrees with suicide, but allows for voluntary euthanasia under certain circumstances (Firth, 2005). 



While these five religions have much in common with each other in regards to views on suicide and euthanasia, it seems that a great deal of those values are tied to the fact that they all ascribe to one kind of life after death or another.  In contrast, the humanist view asserts that the life a person is currently living is the only one he/she has ever or will ever have. 

Loosely defined, a humanist is an atheist or agnostic who is still dedicated to living a morally responsible life (Baggini & Pym, 2005).  A lack of belief in an afterlife of any kind makes caring medically for a dying humanist more difficult, but most humanists would choose for nothing to be done in the way of consolation rather than have a caretaker attempting to fill that void with religion (Firth, 2005).  Humanist literature is more likely to approve of suicide – though certainly not the majority – than the religions discussed previously, and humanists are also likely to condone euthanasia, citing a person’s right to determine what is done to and with his/her own life (Firth, 2005). 



Summary of Studies

I have provided a review of specific studies in a separate hub here: Studies of Death and Religion 

The current research seems to indicate strongly that a belief in an afterlife can minimize a person’s obsession with, anxiety toward, and depression regarding death as well as aid in coping with the death of a loved one. The best part about the current research is that it seems to be consistent in its findings, lending to the validity of both the constructs and in the support of the overall hypothesis which suggest a strong relationship between attitudes towards death and religious belief.



Alvarado, K., Templer, D., & Bresler, C. (1995). Relationship of religious variable to death depression and death anxiety. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51 (2), 202-204.

Austin D. & Lennings C. (1993). Grief and religious belief: does belief moderate depression?  Death Studies, 17 (6) 487-496.

Baggini J. & Pym M. (2005). End of life: the humanist view. Lancet, 366 (9490), 1235-1237

Benore, E. & Park, C. (2004). Death-specific religious beliefs and bereavement: belief in an afterlife and continued attachment.  The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 14 (1), 1-22

Dorff, E. (2005). End of life: Jewish perspectives. Lancet, 366 (9488), 862-865.

Firth, S. (2005). End of life: Hindu view.Lancet, 366 (9486), 682-686

Keown, D. (2005). End of life: Buddhist view. Lancet, 366 (9489), 952-955.

Maltby, J. & Day, L. (2000). Religious orientation and death obsession.  Journal of Genetic Psychology, 161(1), 122-124.

Osborne, T. & Vandenberg, B. (2003). Situational and denominational differences in religious coping. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13 (2), 111-122.

Sachedina, A. (2005). End of life: Islamic view. Lancet, 366 (9487), 774-779.


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    • profile image

      Moral Man 

      2 years ago

      Thank you for the kind words dear friend.

    • Dickensixthgen profile image


      2 years ago from San Dandyeigo

      Hello Moral Man,

      I just read your comments about your loss with you Mother and pets. My heart goes out to you. It sounds like she was your everything. And that you love your pets so much that you wont get anymore because loosing them is too hard to do.

      Furthermore the massive confusion in the world with religion and various world teachings is enough to drive anyone crazy. You know when I went to college I talked with philosophy majors as a freshmen. I can tell you that by the time they graduated, they were the most confused group of people I have ever know. Study all the knowledge in the world and you will be confused. Every religion and philosophy will steer you in a slightly different direction.

      Now couple your loss, with this confusion of the world with your personal struggles and I see you as a person indeed in much pain. I wish I could wave a wand over you to give real peace, some understanding that would rest your soul and great strength in your personal life. My heart truly does go out to you. And to others with such great losses akin to yours.

    • profile image

      Moral Man 

      3 years ago

      My Christian faith has weakened and isn't giving me much comfort about the afterlife. The Bible is vague, ambiguous, unclear, and full of contradictions. The teaching of hell, on the other hand, is painfully clear in the Bible. The majority of Christians believe that the afterlife is either heaven or hell, and Catholics used to believe in purgatory and Limbo. Universalist Christians believe that all people will be saved in heaven, and Annihilationist Christians such as Herbert W. Armstrong, believe that the saved will go to heaven and the unsaved will simply cease to exist. So who is right? Theres so much disagreement about the afterlife, about God, about the Bible, about the Devil, and about religions in general. The three Monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have caused centuries of disagreement, division, and confusion. Disagreement, division, and confusion exists between each religion and within the same religion, religion and science disagree with eachother, and even different scientists disagree with eachother. Catholics contradict Protestants and contradict themselves, Protestants contradict Catholics and contradict themselves, and Gnostic Christianity contradicts BOTH Catholics and Protestants. How are to know who or what to believe with this contorted, convoluted, contradictory confusing mess? Why wont God communicate with us as we sleep and answer our questions? Why allow us to endlessly speculate, guess, argue, and agonize?

      Ive been crying for three weeks now because I lost my beloved mother. Theres a crushing sadness and despair. Theres a horrible sunken feeling in my heart. Why do good people so often fall victim to diseases, accidents, and crimes? My mother was a loving, kind hearted person. Since that horrible day she fell victim to a stroke, my life is hell. Ive been depressed for years, but now its worse. Now its intense mental anguish. The sadness I feel is indescribable. Nature is cruel, ruthless, heartless, merciless, pitiless, immoral, amoral. Nature is cruel beyond imagining. Disease is a CRIME, and the creator of diseases is the worst type of criminal. Im alone in the house. Mental torment is my life. I live in endless fear.

      I will require a mental hospital. Its getting hard to find one. Nature is cruel and human beings are cruel. Mental hospitals are required because the world is intrinsically a screwed up place. The world is a hellhole and horror movie ruled by the Devil and not by a loving God. I live in endless fear.

    • profile image

      Moral Man 

      3 years ago

      My life is ruined. My mother was the most important person in the world to me and I love her more than anyone else. Im a mentally ill, mentally disabled man with depression, OCD, loneliness, and frequent nightmares. I have also lost many beloved pets over the years, from a dog, two small parrots, several small lizards, and several feral cats I used to keep outside the garden, and several pigeons which come to my yard. Currently I have two small pet birds, a small parakeet from South America and a small Dove from Australia. They are the only good things left in my life and when they are gone I will not be getting any more pets as the burden is great and the loss and grief is great as each one passes away. How many more losses and how much more grief can I take? In December 2007 at Christmas time, I lost my beloved parrot, a Cockatiel from Australia. I found him on the bottom of his cage dead. There was a lot of external bleeding from his beak, eyes, and head. I suspect the cause was an aneurysm, one of the cruelest and most lethal diseases. The pain from an aneurysm is agonizing and it can be as lethal as a gunshot blast. I discovered that aneurysm is a frequent cause of death in pet birds. Good animals also suffer and die from Nature and from human beings every day and every year that goes by, and we have a God who allows this.

      The story of Adam and Eve causing all the world's human evil and sin, and causing all the world's Natural evil, suffering and death, is almost certainly a myth or semi-myth. The Bible is semi-mythical and semi-historical. It certainly isn't totally inerrant and infallible. The Bible has errors, absurdities, contradictions, is vague, ambiguous, unclear, and incomprehensible and has caused centuries of disagreement, division, and confusion. The Devil, or Satan and demons are often blamed for both human evil and sin and for Natural evil. By Natural evils Im referring to diseases, centipedes, jellyfish, ticks, fleas, lice, stonefish( a venomous fish with an unimaginably painful sting which causes its victims to scream and writhe in agony) hurricanes, tsunamis, intense cold, intense heat, miscarriages, overpopulation, mass starvation, aging and death, and all this crap just because two ancient humans ate a forbidden fruit thousands of years ago. So the whole creation was ruined for the sin of two people??? Does this make sense? Its a God whi has shown more cruelty and who has caused and created more suffering to His creation all because two ancient humans ate a forbidden fruit which He orchestrated for them to eat. He helped cause the sin of Adam and Eve in the first place. Its a God who has no common sense, who has no reasoning, and who does not know hiw to forgive. Unreasoning, unwise, unkind, unintelligent, unloving, unfair, irrational, insane, stupid, and cruel to the umpteenth degree is this God. Its a God whose cruelty is beyond imagining. The Bible God is mentally blind and morally blind with a Jekyll and Hyde personality. He was in Mr. Hyde mode when He created cancer, malaria, tooth decay, stonefish, mosquitoes, malaria, hurricanes, tsunamis. According to Christian Fundamentalists, billiojs of people are doomed to be tortured forever in hell. Mary Baxter, Bill Wiese, and David J. Stewart describe the horrors of hell as having fire, worms, a sewer like stench, giant spiders and giant snakes, suffocation or inability to breathe, being mutilated and sliced by demonic monsters, and being BURIED ALIVE inside a claustrophobic, coffin like environment forever. Imagine being buried alive inside a closed coffin forever and being burned by fire at the same time. UNIMAGINABLE CRUELTY, TORTURE, AND HORROR infinitely vastly worse than any horror movie. I cannot imagine a God being any more evil than this. Monstrous, sadistic, unimaginable, diabolical, fiendish, malevolent, demonic, Devilish, Satanic horror. What kind of monster inflicts such tortures? What kind of sick criminal does this?

      I live in endless fear of ending up in hell. I also live in fear of going to heaven. Why? Because heaven may not be such a wonderful place if it means having to spend eternity with such a cruel, insane, negligent God. Remember that Christian Fundamentalists believe billions of people are headed to hell. How then can heaven be a place of perfect happiness, joy, and love? Even if one makes it into heaven, theres a very high chance that at least one loved one didn't make it into heaven and instead is roasting like charcoals in hell. I fear that at least one or more family members wont be there in heaven and I fear that my pets wont be there in heaven. I fear that either pets dont have an afterlife or if they do, then its in ANOTHER PLANE OR ON A DIFFERENT LOCATION than the Christian heaven. The afterlife for pets and for humans could be in different locations and it may be impossible to travel from one plane of existence to the other just as its impossible to travel from earth to distant planets light years away and vice versa. Pets and their human owners should be together in the same place. A lot of Fundamentalist Christians say there is no afterlife and no heaven for pets. These Christians tell us that those in heaven will either forget or have no memory of their earthly loved ones who didn't make it into heaven or will remember their earthly loved ones and just accept that they arent in heaven. This is unacceptable to me. I want all my beloved pets with me in the afterlife and I want all my beloved family members with me in the afterlife. My fear is that I will either not have my family with me in the afterlife or I will not have my pets with me in the afterlife, and in the worst case scenario, neither my pets nor my family will be with me in the afterlife. That's a privation and deprivation I cannot live without. Theres not a word in the Bible about pets being in heaven. The Bible is unclear, vague, ambiguous, and full of contradictions. We're not going to get any straight answers nor any straight information from the Bible. I fear that I will never be able to see my beloved pets again and I fear that I will never see my beloved family again. I live in fear, uncertainty, anxiety, mental torment. I personally prefer to believe in Spiritualism and Theosophy in the Astral planes of existence, but Christians say that Spiritualism and Theosophy are lies and deceptions by Satan and demons to confuse and deceive people. Near death experiences, out of body experiences, telekinesis, ghosts, hauntings, poltergeists,etc are all said to be Satanic/demonic deceptions and manipulation. So if one sees a ghost of a person, its really a demon masquerading as a ghost. So who do we believe?

      Im angry at God and angry at the creator of this screwed up world. Disease is a crime and the creator of disease is a criminal. If we're to blame the Devil or Satan and demons, then the question becomes, why is God allowing these evil beings to tamper with, corrupt, ruin, and torment His creation? Isn't God supposed to be stronger and smarter than Satan and demons? Something is not right with this picture.

      My life is mental torment, loneliness, and fear, day in, day out, year in, year out. I fear what will happen to me after I die. The world is a hellhole and horror movie ruled by the Devil and not by a loving God. I live in endless fear.

    • profile image

      Moral Man 

      3 years ago

      I lost my beloved father in August 2011 from heart failure and stroke. He was 79 and had a long history of health problems, such as dengue fever from a mosquito bite, kidney stone, heart attacks and anginas, toothache, hernia, stroke, and heart failure. This poor man also suffered from three serious injuries when he was struck by a rock and hit on the forehead when an insane man on a bus threw a rock, and when he fell headfirst down a flight of stairs outside on a street, and on another occasion when he banged and cut his head while working in the shed at our house. He suffered both physically and mentally for years.

      My beloved mother died ten days ago of a stroke in February 2015. She had another stroke 6 years ago which put her in a coma. She survived the first stroke, but the second stroke destroyed the brain stem and killed her. She was on life support for 4 days. She also suffered from migraine headache since 1985 or 1986. So we're talking 29 or 30 years of immense suffering. This is a crime which Nature inflicts on its creatures. The two strokes she had were also immensely painful. Her last words were that there was a strong pain on the right side of her head. On the last night when she had the fatal stroke 2 weeks ago, she threw up in the living room and I was left alone to clean up the vomit. When I got a telephone call later on my sister told me she would not survive. Intense grief hit me, and I have been crying for the last 2 damn weeks. Im also crying on the inside. My mother was a wonderful person loved by many, and she did not deserve this. The void in the house is painful. Im lost without her. Im tired now. I'll write more later on. Theres more to say.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      There is more similarity between Buddhism and Jainism .

      Hinduism also known as vedik religion which is enemy of 'Buddhism and Jainism the Shraman religion'.

    • ClaudiaP profile image


      10 years ago from California

      Good hub, CarolynnMarie. Wether we think of it or not, each one of us will have to face death one day. The way we see death influences the way we live, so this is a most important issue.


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