transpersonal living thinking and living beyond the self

Perceptions of Death

By Jessica Thomas

Perceptions of death are created through societal influence, experience, values and beliefs. An integration of all these viewpoints form an attitude toward death. American culture might be considered a culture entrenched with death anxiety, repression, and avoidance. It is not uncommon for Americans to separate themselves from the dying, either through emotional barriers such as denial, or physically, such as behind closed doors in care units. Fear of death takes many forms and creates space to allow death to be something that remains “out there”, while mortuary systems are used so that the living can avoid existing with the dead (Suri & Pitchford, 2010).

Societies that tend toward individualism, such as those in Western culture, are more likely to view death in a negative light because it implies a type of vulnerability, much like that of a small child who needs taken care of. While individualist value equality, freedom, and an exciting life, collectivists value social order, honoring of parents and elders, and self- discipline (Eyetsemitan, 2007).

Collectivist, such as many societies in Eastern culture, value interdependency and are more likely to be primary caregivers for dying loved ones. In this case, dying is experienced intimately and is more likely to be understood as a transformative process. Duty and obligation determine social behavior in collectivist societies as oppose to individualistic societies where personal needs, contracts and rights often dictate the course of action (Suri & Pitchford, 2010). For instance, in Western culture a family may choose to put their elderly parent in a facility to die because bringing them home would impinge on their personal freedom and require too much work and technique that they are not familiar with. Meanwhile, in many Eastern societies, bringing an elderly parent home to die and take care of is not only your duty, however an honor.

In Tibet, where knowledge of the higher truths of Buddhism is lived, no one dies without being cared for, both superficially and profoundly, by the community (Rinpoche, 1994). It seems that the Western fixation on medical care and fear of death overshadows the healing wisdom of spiritual care, offering very little if any spiritual guidance in end-of-life institutions. This is no doubt a reflection of a cultures perception of both life and death.

This also gives thought to Eastern cultures belief in the cyclical nature of life, impermanence and its implications in end-of-life care and death. Suri and Pitchford (2010) bring to light the Aghoris sect in India who believe that death is the only medium of transcendence, much like many other societies in Eastern culture, death is an honored event that marks a beginning rather than an end. Sogyal Rinpoche (1994) poetically describes the dance of birth and death in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying:

But fortunately, life is nothing but a continuing dance of birth and death, a dance of change. Every time I hear the rush of a mountain stream, or the waves crashing on the shore, or my own heartbeat, I hear the sound of impermanence. These changes, these small deaths are all links with death (p 33).

Death, understood from a Buddhists perspective is the fundamental nature of all living things, impermanence being the true relation that connects all life forms. Perhaps this is why many Eastern cultures understands the value in deepening a relationship with death- because it presents an opportunity to experience the interdependence and unity with the cosmos.

In Western culture perceptions of death have become so deeply associated with the medical field that it’s nearly lost all connection to life- leaving life and death as mutually exclusive experiences. This has only created more disorientation and avoidance around the concept of death, quite literally severing physical contact with the dying by leaving caregiving to medical professionals. Looking through the history of humanity this dichotomous view of life and death and the physical separation between the living and dying is fairly new. This distance only breeds superficiality toward life. As the gap between living and dying expands as does humanity’s attachment to delusional ways of being- grasping to the material world of things and being lead to believe they hold a type of lasting security.

The future is and always will be an unknown experience, death is no different. Our perceptions of death can be said to guide our intentions and hopes of this unforeseen reality that awaits us all. We can choose to avoid engaging in death, keeping it behind closed doors, and live in a constant state of deception. Or we can acknowledge its existence, accept it as life’s great teacher and liberate ourselves from fear of the unknown. Both avoiding and accepting death are ways in which people perceive life, one may not be any more right than the other, however if your intention is to live a truly free life then the process of accepting your own mortality proves to be advantages. In fact, in some cases, those who are forced to face death through extreme circumstance often times gain a deep appreciation for life and begin to live more authentic and free (Suri & Pitchford, 2010).

It is no coincidence that people finally learn to embrace life when they realize they are on their deathbed, the weight has been lifted, the unknown has made itself known. Why then do so many people wait till death is obvious to acknowledge it? Are we not in the process of dying every day?



Eyetsemitan, F. E. (2007). Perception of Aging in Different Cultures. In M. Robinson, Global Health and Global Aging (pp. 58-95). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rinpoche, S. (1994). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: HarperCollins .

Suri, R., & Pitchford, D. B. (2010). The Gift of Life: Death As Teacher in the Aghori Sect. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 128-134.


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