Missed immortality, death is an inevitable consequence of life, and one cannot be conceived without the other. Both constitute the basis of religious feeling, and the basis of metaphysical reflection. Death is a drama which is played out in the theatre of life and which torments human consciousness since the dawn of time; it abolishes creation and imposes itself as a necessity that destroys and amplifies the realization of the temporal character of everything. Individuals, conscious of their finitude, are subject to it, but cannot save themselves. Thus, they find in a set of symbolic structures and initiatory tests the means of detaching themselves from it, and ways to living it positively. Death implies a set of cultural values ​​that guide collective actions and behaviour within archaic societies. The set of religious and philosophical signifiers thus develop in close relation with this realization of finitude. The experience of death, and thus its realization, seizes life in its fundamental structure.

If the distance between men and the Gods proves to be impassable, the initiatory complex allows to overcome the limitations of human possibilities; in every religious society, there is victory over death through funeral and initiatory rites. Such rites confer a positive function to death, for such an experience is no longer detached and foreign; on the contrary, it is fully lived within the initiation, which doubly proposes a response to the destiny of man, and against a religious truth. Death then appears as a transitional stage rather than a painful one. It spiritualizes man, who can then see his own salvation. In his struggle against death, he tries to transcend time definitively and to inscribe his mode of existence in eternity. Determined to fail, he falls into historical and profane existence, but without forgetting that it is possible for him to change at any moment into a sacred and ahistorical time.

The terrifying, sometimes painful, trials bring the individual closer to such an experience: seclusion in a hut, burial, side-lining, or isolation in the bush, all thus represent a symbolic death and a regression at an earlier stage of consciousness, long before any existence. These rites are didactic journeys by which the experience of life and the victory over death are acquired. The initiate, by attending his own death, acquires a set of techniques that enable him to understand the forces that govern his destiny. These rites revive death and make it a rite of passage, towards a mode of existence detached from the weight of terror. Let us quote, for example, the shaman set apart by the demons; thanks to such initiation, there is a confrontation with death, followed by a spiritual rebirth. Such an initiation also makes it possible to acquire the necessary techniques and knowledge in the face of the forces that govern his destiny. He learns, for example, that initiation is a mastery of time, or that sacred techniques and dances are tools enabling him to inscribe his existence in a particular mode of being; he also discovers that his physical death is only the prelude to a new birth. All this gives him access to the origin of all things, and to the understanding of his own death. The sacred is something terrifying but also something wonderful. In this sense, initiation is a mystical answer to the question that has haunted man ever since, namely his place in the world, his destiny, and what awaits him in the hereafter.

The victory over death is an obsession that is found in many religions, for it possesses in itself salvation in the face of the devastating action of time. If the initiatory rites appear to us as a response to this chaos, it is only a temporary and unstable victory, a victory that must be repeated. Periodic regeneration, if it allows escaping finitude as a constant phenomenon, is not a definitive solution. We will see later how to stay awake during the initiatory rite, it is to show spiritual strength, but also a means to “conquer death”. According to Joseph Campbell, death is the origin of many religions, and affects the very basis of religious feeling[1];  himself to consider that the experience of death is at the origin of many mythologies. Indeed, for many societies, especially hunter-gatherers, there is constant contact with the death of animals that are killed and sacrificed. It is through such contact that a close relationship with the spirit of these animals develops. If they give their lives, then this requires a set of restoration rites. This mystical participation thus enables man to conceive hunting as a ritual rather than an act of cruelty. The guilt, on the other hand, is evacuated thanks to the symbolic complexes; the animal is a divine entity that the hunter respects and honours. In Greece or Africa, the message is the same: animals play an intercessor role with deities through sacrifice. Hinduism includes ashvamedha, which is the sacrifice of the horse, the sacrifice of the sheep in Islam, or the sacrifice of a reindeer on the tomb of the deceased for the indigenous Sámi people. The sacrifice makes the animal a divine entity and brings man closer to death. One can say that rituals, in this sense, allow for a better understanding of death.

Whether it is the initiatory rite or the restoration rite, we have the feeling that the will is similar: there is the search for an experience in the face of death that the profane world can not satisfy. All these rites depend on a set of mythologies. They guide collective actions. Thanks to these myths, initiatory rites can be lived as a coherent and functional whole. Myths “present themselves as specious reasonings linking the immortality of the human being to a requirement which he cannot satisfy because it implies the negation of one of the essential aspects of the same human condition”[2]. Myths allow for reflection in the face of death and highlight the vast universe of imagination and human freedom. They allow this freedom to be constituted in response to finitude. Man, thus accepts his mortality, inherent to his condition, but paradoxically manages to abolish it. Myths also make it possible to determine the set of behaviours required when death occurs. In his study, Didier Mupaya Kapiten quotes Miklos Vetö, who examined the responsibility of man in the emergence of death[3]. He was able to distinguish two types of myths: those excluding all human responsibility, and those holding man as responsible. For the first type, it is the caprice of the Gods that is at the origin of the death of men. The second type is richer and more nuanced and shows how much death is attributable to men’s actions (laziness, forgetfulness, casualness, jealousy, etc.). Let us quote the myth of creation in the Hopi cosmogony[4], where forgetfulness of men is responsible for their own destruction. Indeed, because men have forgotten the deity Taiowa, Sotuknang decides to destroy the world by fire. These narratives reveal more about the origin of death than men, but, more deeply, what the human condition implies. It is a constant struggle against casualness and laziness. Asceticism or spiritual discipline are formed in response to human imperfections, and thus a solution to death. The mystery of death seems to be better penetrated, it loses its esoteric density and appears as something approachable. It can be said that the archaic mentality has in this sense tamed death. By understanding it, it allows itself to be grasped as an intelligible phenomenon. Rites, which are based on these myths, organize in a concrete whole the response to finitude; They are a primordial word for the archaic man. As we have explained, secular existence cannot in itself satisfy the need to escape death. Aspiring to a definitive end of death, man accepts equally his inability to transcend his own finitude. The rite is thus an outlet of time which is not definitive but which allows to accept death in order to better overcome it.

Rites allow us to dive symbolically into death, and to emerge revitalized. They are the experience of a symbolic world allowing identification with the world of the dead and preparing for real death (for example, the shaman is a psychopomp). Rites allow us to better understand how solidarity in death makes it possible to overcome it: “It is from everyday life that death forces man to his destiny of truth, to the point of fixing the challenge of the initiatory rite […], where death is experienced and given to live”[5].

Although there is a set of rites, the funerary rites are those which seem to contain a material sufficiently dense to be leaned on. They have punctuated the epochs and constitute a full sociological and ethnographic study which this book cannot cover. The funeral rites shed light on the relationships between individuals and the world as they conceive it. To date, we do not possess precise knowledge of the origin of the first funerary rites, but some scholars believe that the early practices date from the lower Palaeolithic period[6]. No matter where and when: in Egypt (mummification) as in Ancient Greece (Patroclus washed by Achilles in the Iliad), or in Africa (funerary rites among the Dogons or the Luo), the meaning of funerary rites is the same: a response to death that carries a message about human destiny. During mourning, all social life is suspended and “the living and the dead constitute a special society situated between the world of the living on the one hand and the world of the dead on the other”[7]. Let us return to the funeral rites at Kol of India, quoted in The Rites of Passage[8]:

The body is placed on the ground “so that the soul may more easily find the way to the abode of the dead”, then it is washed and painted in yellow in order to drive away the demons which would prevent the soul from continuing its journey. During this time, parents and neighbours lament. The corpse is then placed on a scaffold, in a specific orientation. Then there is a procession which excludes the children, and the women cry while the men are silent; they all carry a piece of wood which they will throw on the pyre on which are deposited rice and tools, as well as pieces of silver. Once the women have dispersed, the pyre and the stretcher are set on fire. Then the men take charge of collecting the calcined bones that they pour into a pot that they bring back to the house of the dead man. The pot is suspended from a pole, and rice seeds are sown on the road, and food is available so that the dead man, if he returns, has enough to eat. Such a precaution ensures that the dead person will not hurt anyone. The utensils deemed impure are set aside and the house is purified; finally, after a certain time, there is the betrothal of death “with the population of the lower world.” This ceremony is joyous, there are songs and dances; the woman carrying the pot makes jumps of joy and there is a matrimonial procession to the village “from where the dead and her ancestors are native”. Once in the village, the pot is placed in a pit above which a stone is erected. Finally, once back, all participants have to bath in order to purify themselves. If death is caused by an external phenomenon, such as an accident, or an attack by a wild animal, the soul cannot go to the land of the dead.

This rite is fascinating. It provides rich information on the social impact of death. The body painted in yellow is a rite of separation: by painting the dead, it is no longer part of this world. Parents who mourn the dead testify in public of his journey to the other world. The work of mourning thus finds a space for its expression. By depositing tools and food, there is symbolic covenant with death. By setting fire to the stake, we make sure that the dead man is no longer part of this world. Let us note the extra precaution, when men sow the grains of rice: by conferring to the dead food or objects (rice, tools, pieces of silver), one ensures that the dead will lack nothing during its quest. In doing so, in the image of the living traveller, the dead man will be able to make his crossing. Finally, the ceremony ends with festivities. Such rites make it possible to live the experience of death as something positive, for the deceased does not disappear, and his soul travels to another world.

This ceremony allows us to understand to what extent, for archaic societies, the world of the dead is similar to the world of the living. The religious experience of death triggers a series of rites that can be assimilated to a rite of passage. These rites allow an aggregation to the world of the dead. The deceased thus accomplishes his journey of initiation, and the living seek to ascertain that it is happening at best.

In the image of funeral rites, initiatory rites allow death to exist on a multitude of symbolic levels. As we shall see later, in many initiatory rites, the hut symbolizes the maternal womb, or regression in the embryonic state, assimilable to death and nothingness. When the neophyte descends into a cave, or when he is covered with leaves, or when he enters a trance, he revives death. Such rituals make it possible to understand that death is a universal phenomenon that affects human equilibrium. The archaic man thus places himself, through the initiatory rite, inside the dialectic with death, carrying it on the plane of common destiny. It is therefore constituted as a prerogative in the face of this necessity of finitude. As we have seen, the initiatory complex is a victory over death. In this case, we have an interesting paradox: if the rite inscribes sacrificial and symbolic death as a means of overcoming death, it also strengthens the desire for life; the funeral rite welcomes the celebration of life, fertility, or prosperity. Therefore death regenerates life.

It seems to us that the project of the religious man is the following: conscious of death, he wishes as much to realize himself during his lifetime. Through his initiative, he assumes the cosmos and integrates the divine mysteries into initiatory structures, thus making death an intelligible phenomenon. Such an initiative thus sublimates the desire to come closer to the divinities, and thus to reach immortality. As a primordial act, symbolic death brings it back to its ontological impotence. In the initiatory rite, the mysteries of the cosmos are unveiled, in which it can be fully realized. Messianic religions differ in that since they offer a definitive answer to death, not a periodic regeneration: Christ descends on the fallen world to save it, thus restoring the original paradise. In Judaism, this eternal victory is a victory that remains to be attained, but possible. The difference between the archaic and the messianic religions is this one: on the one hand, the victory over death is obtained through the annual festivals and by the repetition of what happened in mythical times, on the other hand, this victory is final and irremediable. Let us note that for Christianity there is death by the sacrifice of Christ, sacrificial and historical death, followed by a miraculous return, the promise of eternal life for Christians. Death, if inevitable, remains the fundamental object of human expression, that of need for initiation, and the understanding of what constitutes it. It opens up to the supreme initiation, that which enables it to be conceived as a kind of passage to a higher mode of being. Initiation in the face of death offers a new dimension to human existence. New birth, it is a prerogative to a spiritual rebirth that allows the access to a mode of being that escapes finitude.

In conclusion, if the certainty of existence remains a hopeless interrogation, the realization of finitude fuels the creations of the imagination. This plays a fundamental role at several levels: that of the collective symbolic structures, which conform to the ritual model of the journey in life as well as in death, to the destructive tests of man when he exists in a profane world and when it regenerates itself through death. Finally, at the level of the symbolic images that are created permanently, reflecting the expression of the need to understand and abolish death.

This is an extract from my book to come, The Sacred: Rites in the Modern World (FR)


  • [1] Alvin H. Perlmutter, Joan Konner, The Power of Myth, 2010.
  • [2] Dominique Zahan, Essai sur les mythes africains d’origine de la mort. L’Homme, 1969, tome 9 n°4. pp. 41-50.
  • [3] Didier Mupaya Kapiten, Vivre sa mort dans les traditions initiatiques d’Afrique noire : Une voie d’approche au mystère de la croix. Théologiques 191 (2011) : 163–180.
  • [4] F. Waters, Das Buch der Hopi. Droemer, 2000.
  • [5] Didier Mupaya Kapiten, Vivre sa mort dans les traditions initiatiques d’Afrique noire : Une voie d’approche au mystère de la croix. Théologiques. Théologie africaine et vie Volume 19, num. 1, 2011.
  • [6] Eudald Carbonell et al., Les premiers comportements funéraires auraient-ils pris place à Atapuerca, il y a 350 000 ans ? L’Anthropologie, vol. 107, Issue 1, 2003, pp. 1-14.
  • [7] A. Van Gennep, Les rites de passage. Picard, 2011.
  • [8] Ibid., pp. 155-156.