Every living creature has to confront the most natural and dreaded part of its existence, death. Animals do not have the same capacity as humans to dwell on this topic, thus humans stand out in this regard, so much so that at times it may consume our entire being.
The thought of death brings about dread, sorrow, and unmitigated uncertainty. Religions are the only method by which some people find solace from the impediment of death and the many ways in which we believe life has meaning after death. There are as many views about death as there are cultures on this planet. People have certain beliefs that accommodate their relationship to death, either we ascend to a higher plane of existence or get sent back into a new life with a new body in the form of reincarnation.
Heaven, Hell or something else
Heaven and Hell, a good place and a bad place. This form of the afterlife is present in many beliefs, each with its variations and distinctive features. The Christian world almost in its entirety believes in the immortality of the soul and an afterlife preceding the passing of the body. Catholics believe that upon death the soul is to be judged by God and sent either to heaven or hell. Christianity in and of itself cannot agree on all its doctrines so that creates many nuances of the afterlife. Some branches of this religion acknowledge the existence of heaven and hell but not of purgatory. Jehova’s witnesses believe that upon death they shall go into a deep sleep, awaiting resurrection. While some shall arrive in Heaven, many others will be brought back to life and live on a paradise on Earth, a garden of Eden.
Afterlife or new life
Other cultures have a different approach to the end of life. In Buddism, reincarnation happens based on Kamma and Karma, good or bad actions. A person can be reborn into an animal if in the former life he has harmed another person, physically or verbally. There are 31 realms of existence in Buddism into which one can be reborn. In Hinduism, the body is but a weak vessel that, upon death is discarded, and the enduring and powerful soul takes on a new form into a new body to live a new life. This cycle repeats itself a few times and the ultimate goal is to break that cycle of reincarnation and attain a higher state of peace.
In Norse mythology, half of the warriors killed in battle are chosen to go to Valhalla, the other half goes to Folkvangr, an afterlife ruled by the goddess Freyja. Those that die of natural causes end up in Hel. For the warriors of Valhalla, the journey in the afterlife is far from over. They must keep themselves fit and battle-ready, so that when Ragnarok begins they are ready to fight.
Ancient Egyptians believed the soul was comprised of two parts, the ka that was released at death, and the ba that remained with the body after death. Rituals were used to set the ba free and rejoin its ka to form an akh. The preservation of the body in the form of mummification was necessary so that the ba could safely return to the body and absorb new life, before returning to the ka each day to form the akh. Before the two parts of the soul came together, the ka would dwell in the Kingdom of the Dead while the ba would go to the fields of Aaru, to work for Osiris as payment for the protection it received. The last judgment of the soul for Egyptians was the weighing of the heart against the Shu feather of truth. If the heart was lighter, the soul could pass on, but if the heart were heavier, the soul would be devoured by the demon Ammit.
In ancient Greece, the souls of the dead are carried by Hermes, the messenger of the Gods, to the banks of the River Styx, where Charon awaits to ferry them off. The souls arrive at one of the four different places in the afterlife. The Elysium fields are heaven, a peaceful place for the purest souls. Tartarus is for blasphemers and evildoers, the Asphodel fields for mediocre souls, and the field of Punishment for the sinners that did no go to Tartarus. Romans have adopted the same system for the afterlife from the Greeks, changing the names of the Gods.
Every afterlife in every culture has a particular hierarchy of levels in the afterlife, with various and numerous rules and regulations, it almost seems bureaucratic. It is, however, understandable that people have tried to assign so many guidelines and systematically organize a part of our existence that they have no control over. Instead of wallowing in the ambiguity of the unknown after death, we fill that space with order and meaning. The common goal for many people is to assign reason to our existence. In the end, some chose atheism or agnosticism and are either happy or anxious about the all-encompassing nothing.