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Cultural Attitudes Toward Death

Since the beginning of time, man has pondered the problem of death and dying.

The attitudes of various religious groups toward death appear to both reflect and determine attitudes of persons within the dominant culture. In primitive societies, where religion and culture were for all practical purposes the same thing, death was tied to life in a cyclical way. That is, death would lead to rebirth or resurrection in one form or another. In this connection, Frazer describes primitive rituals connected with the agricultural and seasonal cycles that in some measure sought to discover meaning in the cycles of human life as well. One such European folk festival, which is designed to ward off ill luck, involves what Frazer refers to as "Burying the Carnival."

On the evening of Shrove Tuesday, the Esthonians make a straw figure called a metsik or "wood-spirit;" one year it is dressed with a man's coat and hat, next year with a hood and a petticoat. This figure is stuck on a long pole, carried across the boundary of the village with loud cries of joy, and fastened to the top of a tree in the wood. The ceremony is believed to be a protection against all kinds of misfortune. Sometimes the resurrection of the pretended dead person is enacted. Thus, in some parts of Swabia, on Shrove Tuesday Dr. Iron-Beard professes to bleed a sick man, who thereupon falls as dead to the ground; but the doctor at last restores him to life by blowing air into him through a tube.1

Elsewhere, Frazer notes that in Middle Eastern and some Eastern European religions, Death was not so much buried as expelled, as a scapegoat. The key element is that resurrection is implied in the death. "Death was originally the spirit of vegetation," says Frazer, "who was annually slain in the spring, in order that he might come to life again with all the vigour of youth . . . Death was not merely the dying god of vegetation, but also a public scapegoat, upon whom were...

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Cultural Attitudes Toward Death. (1969, December 31). In Retrieved 06:16, February 25, 2017, from