Are the Dead Alive?
THE desire of humans to remain alive is strong; so strong, in fact, that throughout history mankind in general has been reluctant to accept death. Funeral customs ancient and modern suggest not only that the dead are alive, but also that they can influence humans, either for good or for bad.
Regarding beliefs of the ancient Babylonians, Professor Morris Jastrow, Jr., writes in The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria:
“It must not be supposed that the denial of immortality to man involved the total extinction of conscious vitality. Neither the people nor the leaders of religious thought ever faced the possibility of the total annihilation of what once was called into existence. Death was a passage to another kind of life, and the denial of immortality merely emphasized the impossibility of escaping the change in existence brought about by death. . . . The Babylonian religion does not transcend the stage of belief, characteristic of primitive culture everywhere, which cannot conceive of the possibility of life coming to an absolute end. Life of some kind and in some form was always presupposed.”
Funeral Customs at Babylon
According to the view of the ancient Babylonians, at death humans enter Arallu, “the desolate land,” where they continue alive in a dreary existence. “The body, in which the departed soul had still a lively interest,” notes Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, “was either buried or burned, and the kinsmen supplied it with food, drink, clothing, and the implements which characterized the occupation of the person on earth. Cremation and body-burial existed side by side from the earliest times.”
According to the same reference work, even in cases of cremation food and other items accompanied the remains. “The ashes were gathered carefully in an urn, in which jars of drink (beer in the early period, water in the later), bread, etc., were placed, to provide for the immediate needs of the soul.”
Not only did the ancient Babylonians believe that the dead were still alive, but they also believed that humans could communicate with and be influenced by them. The custom developed of offering monthly communion sacrifices to the “shades” of dead ancestors.
Professor Jastrow points out that an important factor in the honors paid by the living to the memory of the deceased was fear. Yes, fear prompted the living to engage in various rites associated with the dead. Professor Jastrow said in this regard: “To provide the dead with food and drink, to recall their virtues in dirges, to bring sacrifices in their honor,—such rites were practised, as much from a desire to secure the favor of the dead and to ward off their evil designs as from motives of piety, which, of course, were not absent. The dead who was not properly cared for by his surviving relatives would take his revenge upon the living by plaguing them as only a demon could.”
Disposal of the Dead in Egypt
Similar attitudes toward the dead prevailed in ancient Egypt. H. R. Hall, a specialist on Egyptian antiquities, writes: “That he who had been alive was now absolutely and irrevocably dead was as inconceivable to the childlike mind of the oldest Egyptian as it was to that of any other primitive man. And among this most conservative of all races, the primitive idea merely became more elaborate and overgrown with ritual as civilization progressed.”
When it came to funeral procedures, the Egyptians went beyond the Babylonians. In ancient times Egyptian slaves were strangled and buried along with their masters in order to serve them after death. Burial of persons connected with royalty came to include a vast array of objects. H. R. Hall gives some examples:
“There were stacks of great vases of wine, corn, and other food, covered up with masses of fat to preserve the contents, and corked with a pottery stopper, which was protected by a conical clay sealing, stamped with the impress of the royal cylinder-seal. There were bins of corn, joints of oxen, pottery dishes, copper pans, and other things which might be useful for the ghostly cuisine of the tomb. There were numberless small objects, used, no doubt, by the dead monarch during life, which he would be pleased to see again in the next world—carved ivory boxes, little slabs for grinding eye-paint, golden buttons, model tools, model vases with gold tops, ivory and pottery figurines, and other objets d’art, the golden royal seal of judgment of king Den in its ivory casket, and so forth.”
Have you ever seen a picture of the huge Egyptian pyramids? These are luxuriously furnished tombs for dead Egyptian royalty. The Great Pyramid near Cairo is 146.59 meters (481 feet) high. Each side measures 230.35 meters (756 feet) long. Made up of more than two million stones weighing up to two and a half tons each, in area this massive structure covers 54,000 square meters (about 13 acres), enough to hold ten football fields. Attached to the pyramids were temples to promote worship of the dead Pharaohs.
Outstanding among Egyptian burial customs was preservation of the body through mummification. Greek historian Herodotus, who was an eyewitness of this process, mentions three methods, the most costly of which he describes in this way:
“[The embalmers] take first a crooked piece of iron, and with it draw out the brain through the nostrils, thus getting rid of a portion, while the skull is cleared of the rest by rinsing with drugs; next they make a cut along the flank with a sharp Ethiopian stone, and take out the whole contents of the abdomen, which they then cleanse, washing it thoroughly with palm wine, and again frequently with an infusion of pounded aromatics. After this they fill the cavity with the purest bruised myrrh, with cassia, and every other sort of spicery except frankincense, and sew up the opening. Then the body is placed in natrum [subcarbonate of soda] for seventy days, and covered entirely over. After the expiration of that space of time, which must not be exceeded, the body is washed, and wrapped round, from head to foot, with bandages of fine linen cloth, smeared over with gum, which is used generally by the Egyptians in the place of glue, and in this state it is given back to the relations, who enclose it in a wooden case which they have had made for the purpose, shaped into the figure of a man. Then fastening the case, they place it in a sepulchral chamber, upright against the wall.”
What was the purpose of this elaborate embalming procedure? The ancient Egyptians believed that humans were made up of several parts. There was the ikhu (spark of intelligence), the ba (birdlike soul), the ka (the individual’s double that accompanied him while on earth) and the khaibit (his shadow). These were believed to separate from the body at death. In early times Egyptians believed that the soul of a dead person wandered through the underworld or through the desert during the day. But at night or in times of danger it would return to the body. Likely this was an important reason why such pains were taken to preserve the body.
Belief that the dead are alive has survived even down to our day. “Among many peoples,” declares the Encyclopædia Britannica, “the belief that the dead actually dwelt in their tombs has caused the tombs of certain holy persons to become shrines, which thousands visit to seek for miracles of healing or to earn religious merit; notable examples of such centres of pilgrimage are the tombs of St. Peter in Rome, of Muhammad at Medinah, and, in ancient times, the tomb of Imhotep at Saqqarah, in Egypt.”
The Bible’s Unique View
Contrasting with these complex burial procedures is disposal of the dead by the ancient Israelites. Says the Encyclopædia Judaica: “Archaeology reveals no distinctively Israelite burial practices during almost the whole of the biblical period. . . . The [Mosaic] law says relatively little about burial, and where it treats the subject, the concern is to avoid defilement by the dead (Num. 19:16; Deut. 21:22-23). The dead do not praise God, they are forgotten and cut off from His hand (Ps. 88:6, 10-12), and in consequence mourning and the burial of the dead are at most peripheral matters in Israelite religion.” So inconspicuous were Jewish burial places that Jesus could speak of “memorial tombs which are not in evidence, so that men walk upon them and do not know it.”—Luke 11:44.
This highlights the fact that concerning death the Bible presents a unique view. In both the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures death is likened to a sleep in which the deceased “are conscious of nothing at all.” (Eccl. 9:5; Ps. 13:3; John 11:11-14) Persons dying go into the “dust of death,” becoming “impotent in death.”—Ps. 22:15; Prov. 2:18; Isa. 26:14.
What about the soul? According to the Bible, the soul is not a part of a person, but is the entire person. (Gen. 2:7) When an individual dies, therefore, the soul dies. Hence, we find the prophet Ezekiel condemning those who connived “to put to death the souls that ought not to die” and “to preserve alive the souls that ought not to live.” (Ezek. 13:19; 18:4, 20) In agreement with many current Bible scholars, Professor Edmond Jacob of the University of Strasbourg flatly states: “No biblical text authorizes the statement that the ‘soul’ is separated from the body at the moment of death.” Did you know that?
Since the dead are not alive they cannot harm persons on earth. Nor can they be helped by religious ceremonies performed by the living. The Scriptural hope for the dead is not by the survival of a nonexistent immortal soul, but by a resurrection. That means a returning to life of the whole person, as happened with those whom Jesus raised from the dead. (Luke 7:11-17; 8:41, 42, 49-56; John 11:1-44) Would you not like to learn more about this Bible-based hope? If so, ask the publishers of this magazine to help you.