WE DO NOT KNOW ― and probably we never can or will ― when or why men first began to think about what, if anything, happens after death, but we have inherited the process that began with their first speculations, in a long, unbroken string, and the same thing puzzles us.
Like us, of course, primitive man could see that death is something final and irreversible in terms of the body, and that no one awoke from it and resumed their normal activities as after sleep; the body, when dead, begins to putrefy and stink abominably; if not cremated, or eaten by birds and beasts, it will be consumed by maggots, until finally, only bones remain. Beyond this, we know nothing for sure.
From the discovery of ancient graves, and the artifacts found together with the bones therein, there is reason to suppose that, many thousands of years ago, some of our ancestors performed services or ceremonies for their dead, or how else can we account for things like weapons, jewelry, cooking utensils, and foodstuffs that were buried with them? Surely, primitive men were not so naive as to suppose that dead bodies, which would soon be reduced to bones, would be able to use these things; they must have been included for use in a postulated 'afterlife.' How, when, and why was the tremendous mental leap made between the observable death and dissolution of the body, and the unobservable, but imagined, survival ― in some form or another ― of something 'immaterial?' And how long did it take for such a supposition to become a widely accepted part of diverse cultures?
Several thousand years BC, the Egyptians had developed a brilliant culture centered around death and the after-life. Pharaohs and other high ranking, rich and powerful people spent many years of their lives thinking about and planning for their own deaths, and we might conclude that the rest of the people planned about it according to their lesser means. The pyramids are the most visible and durable forms of this death culture, and there still exist many mummified bodies in museums around the world. Nor were only people mummified, in hope of resurrection (which was an old, old concept long before Jesus was born), but animals and birds, too. Life in this world was regarded as a period to prepare for death and the after-life.
Now, throughout recorded history, people have reported seeing ghosts, and this has continued until the present, in spite of our increased learning and scientific knowledge, and we haven't been able to adequately explain this. There is no reason to suppose that primitive men didn't also see ghosts or apparitions, although they probably understood even less about them than we do, and were proportionately more scared. Like us, they most likely would have thought of them as 'non-material' entities, and probably concluded that life doesn't end with the body's death, and that something remained. Fear of ghosts, combined with a dim hope of surviving death, was probably one of the main factors in the beginning of religion, together with the propitiation of imaginary spirits or gods (at this stage, it would not have included a moral code, which would come much later, as a means of bringing some semblance of order into society).
When men had evolved further, and had entered the stage of cultivating their own food, instead of hunting and gathering it wherever they could find it they would have been deeply struck by the regular rotation of the seasons, and seed time and harvest, noting how seeds planted in the ground must 'die' in order for new life to spring up therefrom. Many nature- and fertility-cults developed out of such observations, for men were very close to, and dependent upon the soil in those days (unlike we of today, who are still dependent, but not close to the soil).
Surrounded by such cults of death and resurrection, it is not surprising to find this and other 'pagan' beliefs central to Christianity; the followers of Jesus turned his ignominious death on the cross to their advantage by the use of this popular concept, taking him beyond the sphere of death and the power of his enemies to harm him; thus, he became more effective in death than in life, and the belief of his followers magnified and distorted him out of all proportion, when he was no longer around to discourage or prevent this inevitable tendency.
The major religions all have concepts about life after death, and most of them place great significance on the state of the mind at the moment of death. Catholics call in a priest to administer 'the last rites' to someone who is about to die, who will be urged to confess his sins and make his peace with God, so that his mind will be unburdened for passing on. Buddhists invite monks to chant at the bed-side and/or preach Dharma to the dying person, as a means to help him/her focus his/her mind on something positive; it is considered very important to let go and die with as peaceful a mind as possible, in line with the teachings that the last thought moment of the present life will determine the first thought moment of the next life, for the one flows into the other in an unbroken continuum. It is believed that a positive state of mind at death will carry one to a positive next life; whereas, if a negative or unwholesome state of mind prevails at death, the subsequent rebirth will not be very good.
In 1991, when I visited the Vietnamese Refugee Camp at Sungei Besi, Malaysia, someone told me of a refugee who had been there for several years, pining and hoping that his application for resettlement in another country would be approved. One morning, he was called to the office of the UNHCR, and informed that he had been accepted for resettlement in the U.S. We can imagine his joy, can we not?
During the afternoon of that same day, however, there was a thunderstorm over the Camp, and he was struck by lightning, and killed outright. "How unfortunate! How sad!", most people would say. Yes, but there is another way of looking at it, particularly if we accept the concept of Rebirth, and I propose it here not because I am heartless, and feel no sorrow at his abrupt death, but more out of a desire to extract something useful from it, so that his death might be illustrative of something to someone, and therefore not in vain. It is possible, if not probable, that the mind of that young man at the time of his sudden and unexpected death was still infused with the joy from the news of his acceptance, and so we might say that he died happy, which is not something that anyone can arrange or engineer. Had he gone to the U.S., as he expected to, and lived there for many years, he would have been happy at times, no doubt, but at other times, we can say with equal certainty, he would have been unhappy and sad, from encountering the many difficulties and problems, sicknesses and setbacks that life holds for us all in varying amounts; and the possibility of him dying with a happy mind would be much less than 50%. Therefore, contrary to what many or even most people would say, I maintain that he was fortunate to die in the manner that he did.
Recently, while relating this incident to a family who had been in the same Refugee Camp years before, they told me of a similar case that took place there. A man who was the sole survivor of his boat's asylum seekers had just received the long awaited news of his resettlement, and overjoyed, he went to burn incense at the foot of a coconut tree in thanksgiving, though why he chose a coconut tree, I don't know, unless ― as it not uncommon in certain Asian countries ― there was a small shrine there. Whatever, as he was doing so, he was struck on the head by a falling coconut, and died instantly.
Christians believe ― as they are taught so ― that our lives begin with the present life, but go on into an infinity of either heavenly bliss or infernal suffering; to them, there is no life prior to this one. To believers in rebirth or reincarnation, however (and this includes Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Theosophists, and even ― surprisingly ― some Christians today), the present life is just one of a long series of lives, which stretch out on either side of this one like links in a chain; the present life is not the first, and, in all probability, will not be the last. Although I personally accept the Buddhist concept of Rebirth, I cannot prove or demonstrate it to anyone, so I prefer not to say much about it, for if I did so, I would be in the same position as those who claim this or that about things that cannot be verified. Moreover, I feel that the present life is the most important, as it's the only one we've got (in fact, there is only and always the present moment; the past and the future are unreal, and we cannot even talk of the present, for it is not something to be spoken of, but to be lived).
According to the concept of Rebirth, therefore, the death of this body is merely one of a number of such events in the long career of any individual, and is by no means unique or unusual. Also, as we can all see, we do not have to be old to die; death does not respect youth, health, or strength, any more than it respects wealth, rank, or power; when it comes for us, swiftly or slowly, we cannot refuse its summons, but must go.
Now, following what I've just said, it may be that someone will think thus: "If it's so important and fortunate to die with a happy mind, Iíll wait until I'm very happy, and then blow my brains out!" Ah, the cunning human mind, always seeking to control and manipulate everything! Do you think it would work that way? You might be able to obtain a gun (in a world that is awash with weapons, that would not be very difficult); you might wait until you are very happy, and then raise the gun to your head, but ... do you think that at the last moment, when you are about to pull the trigger, your happiness would hold? Could you be sure that your mind would not shake, and your happiness flee?
"Well, in that case," you might think, "I'll hire a hit-man to follow me around until he sees me happy, and then blow me away." Could we engineer our own death in such a way as to be sure to die happy? I would not advocate trying it, because although there are certain circumstances under which I could understand suicide, I can see plenty of reasons for wanting to live and work for the betterment of the world we live in, even if, personally, we make no further progress than what we've made so far.
Yes, life is a struggle; why not? And if we were taught so from the very beginning, instead of being led to believe otherwise, we would be much better equipped to deal with its ups and downs, pains, sorrows and disappointments than we are. As it is, our advances in science and technology, wonderful though they are, have shielded us from some of the blows of life, and given us the hope that we might eventually be free from them all, and so life often catches us with our pants down, unprepared.
"The gem cannot be polished without friction,
nor man perfected without trials."