Snapshot: Afterlife

(Photo Credit: 365 Bristol/Bristol Museum & Art Gallery)

Bristol Museum’s temporary exhibition on Death has proved to be quite controversial, with its focus on a topic that remains taboo in society even today. Although perhaps not the most cheery way to spend a Friday afternoon, we found it to be interesting and enlightening.

As you enter the exhibition you are surrounded by huge folds of dusky rose curtains and classical music plays somewhat ominously. A wide range of fascinating objects are on display including Mexican "Day of the Dead" masks, stuffed animals that are associated with death and various statues and works of art depicting death. This leads on to an exploration of the more medicalised, practical aspects of death, such as how pathologists carry out autopsies, before leading on to a discussion about the burial rites associated with different religions and a brief nod to assisted dying and euthanasia. The audio guides provided proved to be useful and allow you to really reflect on what you were seeing and reading. I also liked the inclusion of the "reflection area" at the end of the exhibition. The reflection area is slightly closed off from the rest of the exhibition and has beanbags, boxes of tissues and pieces of paper on which you can write down any thoughts that come to you as a result of the exhibition and put them in a reflection pot. I actually found that the most emotional part of the exhibition was reading some of the poignant comments people had written, to or about loved ones they had lost. Seeing people’s articulation of sorrow and loss was the only moment in the exhibition that really emphasised to me the idea of death as a truly human experience, maybe because it allowed me to more naturally empathise with people’s personal experiences of grief.

The exhibition left me wondering why death is such a taboo topic and I think that it’s because we fear death. I’m not sure that we fear the unknown aspect of death so much as we fear the process of dying – the fact that it might be painful, that we leave behind the people, things and lives that we love. Indeed it’s possible that the very concept of the afterlife, so prevalent in religions and cultures all around the world, came about in response to allay fears about death.

Many religions and cultures focus on how the way we live can affect whether we will enter an idyllic afterlife or not. Ideologies about the afterlife, and the impacts of living actions on the quality of the afterlife we will have, can be traced back to ancient times. It’s interesting to look, for example, at how the burial rites of the Ancient Egyptians were influenced by their belief in the afterlife. Their equivalent of heaven was known as the Land of the Two Fields and they believed that you could only earn your way into the land of two fields by performing good deeds during your life, once again raising questions of moral culpability in relation to the afterlife. Strict adherence to complex rituals was required in order to successfully make the transition from an existence on Earth to immortality. I think that’s probably an idea that makes the afterlife so appealing – a guarantee of immortality, perhaps meaning that we don’t have to view death as an end but instead just see it as a transition, so it fundamentally alters how we perceive death. The Egyptians believed that the journey to the Land of the Two Fields was perilous with many obstacles. Spells were required to overcome these evils and so they were written down on papyrus and left near the mummified body. Food was also required as sustenance for the journey so was also left with body.

If they successfully avoided these obstacles they would reach the gates to the Land of the Two Fields, but before their entry they would have to pass the test in the hall of two truths. The only organ that was left in the mummified body was the heart – the others were placed in canopic jars. The heart was left inside the body because it was thought that the heart was the seat of the soul and the more good deeds you had performed in your lifetime, the lighter your heart would be. The test involved weighing the heart, placed on one side of the scale, and on the other side of the balance was the feather of truth. If one passed this test by having a heart lighter than the feather of truth, they would enter the Land of the Two Fields, if they failed it they would be eaten by a monster known as the devourer and would be gone forever.

So we can see how ideas about the afterlife have arguably always been intrinsically intertwined with ideas about religion. More widely though, we see how they are entrenched in moral values that it was deemed appropriate to adhere to. We therefore almost get the sense that the overriding ideology that governs all forms of the afterlife is that the main purpose of life is that it should be lived in such a way that it guarantees entrance to a happy afterlife, with an emphasis on morality. From a more practical perspective, if we take the view that organised religion is entangled with government and power structures; it was probably a good way of ensuring that society remained in functioning order by scaring people into acting in the interests of society on the premise that this would guarantee their entry into an idyllic, utopian afterlife.

This is perhaps emphasised by the fact that atheists reject the very existence of an afterlife, with Richard Dawkins arguing that “Not believing in an afterlife gives greater meaning and greater fullness to the one life we have. You don’t mess around wasting your time in this life because you expect to have another one. You’re not going to get another life. Make the most of this one.”

The Death exhibition included a quote from Isaac Asimov, who suggested that “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.” So whether you believe there is a utopian, heavenly afterlife or that we will enter into an oblivion of nothingness, it’s arguable that both views of the afterlife are a guarantee of peace and so a belief in the afterlife (or lack of it) in turn, has the capacity to diminish our fears about death.