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Living, Dying and the Afterlife:
Being aware of the diversity of cultural belief systems in paranormal research
by Lisa Dowaliby

(reprinted with permission)

As a paranormal investigator, or simply an individual with an interest in the paranormal, one of the finest tools one can have is knowledge. Being knowledgeable of the many different views of death helps us better understand our subject of interest, thus making us more qualified investigators. It also helps us relate to clients of many different cultures and religions, and can show us how they interpret the perceived paranormal activity they are experiencing.

Since the beginning of civilization, and perhaps even beforehand, there have been many diverse beliefs regarding the life, the dying process and the afterlife.  Approaching this from the perspective of someone investigating the paranormal, we must keep in mind that different cultural belief systems may see the same thing in many different ways. This fact is important, as perception of paranormal activity is as important as the activity itself.

For instance, the attitude concerning suicide differs greatly in many cultures and religions. This is important to remember if you are dealing with reports of activity in a residence or building where a suicide has allegedly taken place. Some cultures view suicide as a terrible sin, and believe the individual who commits suicide is condemned for eternity. Many Jewish and Christian cultures strongly oppose suicide. Others believe suicide is honorable and even desirable under the right circumstances. Japanese Samurai felt as thought ritual suicide was a way to make atonement for dishonoring one's self or one's family. (Haley 1999:55) There are also some Native American tribes, such as the Inuit, who feel as though there are rewards in the afterlife for those who take their own lives, and will even assist others in doing so. (Haley 1999:55)

Some things you might want to look into during a case investigation involving suicide would be the following:

  • What cultural/religious backgrounds does the client belong to? Do they practice their religion regularly, and do they have a strong belief system?
  • What are their interpretations and feelings about death and suicide? How do they feel about the fact that a person took his or her own life in this building? Apply your information about their cultural ties and belief and attempt to cross reference this with their reaction to and perceptions of the activity they are experiencing.
  • If at all possible, try to find out the religious/cultural background of the deceased. Access public records, newspapers form the time of the suicide, etc. Can you get any clues about why this person took his or her own life, and what their state of mind was at the time?
  • Ask yourself: How could the clients' set of beliefs and concepts affect the way these individuals perceive alleged paranormal experiences? Apply this question when you are interviewing your client(s) and recording a history of activity in the home. Pay attention to the body language and tone your clients use when describing the experiences that re having or have had. Do they seem to feel threatened? Excited? Interested? Amused? Do they feel as though the activity is coming from something positive and harmless, or something more sinister? Someone from a strong Catholic background may have a different reaction than someone from a Wicca background, and so on. There is no good or bad, no right or wrong; it is simply, as mentioned, a tool for helping us get a better understanding of what the "big picture" is when we are obtaining information.

The concept of how we are living life itself, and your clients' views regarding this, is also a very important factor to consider. Some cultures, including some from Pre-Columbian times, believe that this life, no matter how tough, is much better than what waits for us once we pass on. In other words, they believe that we should enjoy ourselves now, because there is no fun to be had after we go. (Haley 1999)

Many cultures believe that where our souls go when we die depends on how we live our lives now. The promise of rewards after death is an important backbone of many cultural and spiritual belief systems. The soul plays many different roles and has many different meanings to cultures all over the world, both past and present. Many cultures believe that the soul lives on eternally after death. Others believe that the soul passes on, remains for a finite time in a sort of afterlife, and then is reborn as a living being again. There are still others who believe the soul leaves the body in stages, rather than all at one.

There are people who have no belief in the afterlife at all. They believe that once a living thing dies, it ceases to exist, and there is no continuation of the soul or spirit. These individuals  are frequently quite skeptical of the possibility of ghosts or spirits, as the concept of their existence contradicts their opinion that there is no soul or afterlife. Interestingly, it seems that these people are frequently the most likely to be disturbed and upset at the thought of a ghost or spirit occupying their living space.

If a client express that they have no belief in souls or the afterlife, it is equally as important as the belief in a religion or cultural tradition. Every piece of information we gather helps us form a picture of sorts for each investigation. Some things to take note of:

  • What are the client(s) views of the soul? DO they consider the soul to be an intelligent continuation of the living being, or just a form of energy?
  • Does the client believe that our behavior in this lifetime could affect what happens to our souls when we pass on? Ask them to describe what they think happens to us after death regarding whether we have been "good" or "bad". What is the client's view of "heaven" or an afterlife reward, and "hell" or an afterlife punishment?

Of course, one of the most important questions an investigator should pose involves the client's belief of what a ghost actually is. Religious and cultural belief systems play a huge part in forming this opinion.

It is generally a universal concept that ghosts are spiritual remnants of once-living beings.

It is important to understand how the client views a ghost; i.e. is a ghost an evil presence, a harbinger of bad luck, etc., or is it a way for a loved ones to stay close to their family and even their homes, perhaps even a lonely spirit just looking for contact? In some cultures where there are strong family ties, ghosts are frequently accepted as family members continuing to be part of their group. Other cultures see the possibility of a ghost as a threat to the living - possibly even a jealous or vengeful entity with bad intentions.

Overall, the more research and information you can gather on a client's culture and beliefs, the more understanding you will have of how the person or people perceive and interpret possible paranormal activity. It is also an excellent idea to research the property, home, or land to see if there are or was key cultural influences in the area. This will not only assist in cross referencing reports of activity, but will also help determine if there is a direct link between the cultural influence and the type of activity being experienced. This can then be cross referenced and examined to look for meaningful cues, signs of communication, etc.

I highly recommend that everyone research different cultural belief systems regarding death and the afterlife. It is not only a valuable tool in paranormal investigation, but a fascinating and enlightening subject.

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