Animism and the Moment of Death

The Flying Egg, watercolour, Peter Goode.

The Flying Egg, watercolour, Peter Goode.

With each death and each funeral people cried out in anguish, drawing others into the region of death and dying so that no-one in that torn space was isolated or silenced.” Deborah Bird Rose.

Bereavement and Place

In Wild Dog Dreaming, Love and Extinction, Deborah Bird Rose writes about Australian aboriginal funerals that reach out, through anger, negotiation, song, and tears, ‘to the individuality of the dead person, to their country, and to the spirits that may have been walking about, to the Dreamings that take notice, to the family, to the custodians of the dead, and to the stories, like the Dingo and the Moon.’  She contrasts this with the awfulness of some Pentecostal funerals where members of the congregation were urged to rejoice because their brother or sister had gone to heaven.  What made those funerals awful was the suppression of traditional modes of grieving that ‘turn death back towards life’.  ‘Those howling harmonies, sing the dying person through death, and into the great turning’; they sing the dead back into their home country.  Death may end a particular life, but life itself is ‘a process of ongoing cross-species transformations’.(1)

A bit closer to home, on September 2nd a small crackling radio filled our living room with almost unbearably poignant music.  Liam O’Flynn was playing the slow air Port na bPucai on the uilleann pipes at Seamus Heaney’s funeral in Dublin.  In The Given Note Heaney alludes to one of several stories about the origin of this tune.  Some Blasket Islanders were rowing back from Inishvikilaune when they heard strange sounds on the wind, or perhaps reverberating in the hull of their currach.  One of them was a fiddler, so he picked up his bow and played along. Another story tells of an elderly couple who were cattle herders spending the summer on Little Blasket.  The woman heard a strange sound in the night, and realising it was a female voice, woke her husband.  They listened all night until they’d learned the tune. Port na bPucai means ‘Music of the Faeries’, but for non believers a third story attributes the tune to the singing of humpback whales heading for their breeding grounds around Cape Verde.  Either way, this is clearly elemental/spirit music.

An entire genre of Celtic storytelling, the immrama, is devoted to voyages to otherworldly islands in the West.  It is often slow plaintive music that enchants the traveller, enabling them to cross over into the timeless realm of the ever-living.  Our modern English word enchantment comes from the Latin incantare, to chant or charm. Judging by the sounds coming through that little radio, Seamus Heaney was well sung through death.

Animism and Death

Encounters with death, and in particular, various extra-ordinary experiences around moments of death, have been pivotal to my understanding of animism.  The Victorian anthropologist Edward Tylor theorised animism as a universal proto-religion characterised by a belief in ‘spiritual beings’.  According to Tylor animists make the fundamental conceptual error of attributing life to ‘inanimate’ objects and souls to non-human animals.  Understandings of death have, therefore, also been pivotal to ongoing debates about animism.  In his chapter on death, for example, Graham Harvey writes ‘the least interesting thing about ancestors is that they are dead’.  For Harvey, our culturally framed relationships with them are what matters.(2)  Some new animist writing, however, seems to privilege this-worldly ecological relationship at the expense of marginalising extra-ordinary experience, thereby conceding vital ground to Tylorian scientism.  Tylor’s polemic was, after all, intended to facilitate the eventual eradication of animist belief, as he defined it, by the advance of scientific rationality.(3)

In his Wonders of Life series for B.B.C television, Brian Cox visited Sagada, a town in the northern Philippines famed for a nearby cliff face adorned with hanging coffins.  He went there to witness the festival of the Day of the Dead, and to restate Tylor’s argument in the context of twenty first century science.  He began by pointing out that in this area Catholicism was thinly grafted on to indigenous animism, and defining the latter as a belief that ‘a life force or soul … exists in all things from the lower animals to trees, lakes and mountains’, and that the spirits of the dead return (in this case) to the living mountain.  He then acknowledged that ‘this potent brew of superstition’ was enacted in moving and spectacular fashion, in ‘a quite magical hillside churchyard’, and was surprised to find a sense of celebration that felt closer to a family reunion than a bereavement. It would be inappropriate to dismiss these people’s belief in spirits ‘without thought’, since ‘it certainly feels right’.  Professor Cox, however, asserted that when he dies he’ll be ‘nothing more than an inanimate bag of chemicals slung on the floor’. ‘Nothing will have left, yet what will be left will no longer be me’.  He therefore feels that it’s incumbent upon science to explain how our feeling of being alive, and all the processes associated with living, could have emerged from their chemical constituents.(4)

As an embodied human being, however, Brian Cox cannot know whether he will be reduced to nothing more than a pile of chemicals at the moment of death.  This kind of absolute mechanist-materialist negation might best be described as reverse metaphysics.  Whilst most animists would share his enthusiasm for a science that illuminates the wonder-full minutiae of the natural world, most would, I suspect, balk at his totalising claim that its up to science is to provide a complete description of the universe, and answer the question ‘what is life?’  Such a view, which leaves no space for other kinds of knowledge, no room for other ways of thinking about the human condition, is well described (not least by other scientists such as Susan Greenfield) as scientism.  One of the commonest expressions of this faith is neurological reductionism.

Near Death Experience

A recent example of the genre can be seen in the claims made by Dr Jimo Borjigin and her team arising from experiments in which they gave rats lethal injections in order to measure their brain activity as they died, or as they describe it ‘we performed continuous electroencephalography in rats undergoing experimental cardiac arrest ‘.  Borjigin’s finding was that, contrary to expectation, the rats’ brains were, if anything, much more active in the thirty second period after their hearts had stopped beating than in a normal waking state.  This ‘raging fire’ of cerebral activity would generate ‘realer than real’ feelings and is proposed as the possible neurological basis of Near Death Experiences (NDE’s).  Borjigin commented that many people who have had NDE’s ‘think its evidence they actually went to heaven – perhaps even spoke with God’, and, worryingly, argues that her results ‘open the door to further studies in humans’.(5)  I’m reminded of my PhD supervisors, Pat Bracken and Phil Thomas, who caution against the use of neuroscience in psychiatry by likening it to an attempt to understand Picasso’s Guernica by analysing the chemical composition of the pigments used.(6)

 In a landmark study that attends to the phenomenology, subjective meaning, and cultural implications, of Near Death Experiences, as well as to a variety of associated neurophysiological phenomena (including the parameters of brain death), Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel concludes that N.D.E’s are profoundly transformative learning experiences.  Having collected testimony from many patients who could accurately recall details from a period of surgery when they were under general anesthesia, he proposed a theory of non-local consciousness, based on the assumption that consciousness has ‘no material basis’, and that the brain works in a manner analogous to a television set.(7)  Van Lommel brings an eclectic, pluralistic, and open minded approach, to bear on an important and long suppressed area of human experience, and hopes to improve the quality of care for individual patients and their families.  His conclusions raise a multitude of questions relevant to animism.

Saying Goodbye to Samuel

samuel on wall247

Samuel was a wonderfully strong willed black cat who adopted us, and lived with us for just over thirteen years.  He would come for quite long walks with us, and would knock imperiously on the cat flap to be let in! Eventually he succumbed to the wear and tear of life, as we all do, and became weak and lethargic. I vividly remember him making a determined last circuit of his territory, even though he could barely walk by then.  And how he came upstairs and laid down by my bedroom door. His health suddenly deteriorated, so my partner took him to the dreaded vet.  I found her sitting in the car afterwards, in floods of tears.  Samuel’s kidneys had failed, and she’d been told that the kindest thing to do would be to have him put down.

After sitting in the car with Samuel, I took him back in.  The vet was pleasant enough, but very formal, and clearly didn’t want to talk to me.  He seemed uncomfortable when I looked into Samuel’s beautifully expressive eyes, said goodbye, and wished him ‘bon voyage’.  Perhaps he thought I was crazy?  Perhaps vets need to protect themselves during what must be a very difficult part of their job.  Anyway, he came back with a nurse.  Shortly after the injection Samuel yelped in pain, and then went, almost instantly.  I found it ‘very shocking’.  We cried a lot.  I cleared up.  Felt horribly disorientated.  Fortunately I was able to talk to two close friends who were sympathetic.  One told me how some people had been dismissive of her bereavement when her dog had died.  Then, of course, all the memories flooded back. Samuel’s lovely purring.  His demands and complaints!  His playfulness.  The wonderful affectionate calls.  He was, quite simply, a loved and valued member of the family.  Again, a multitude of questions arise, but I’ll leave them in the air for now ….

(More on Deborah Bird Rose’s book shortly )

Other Animists’ thoughts on Death can be found at October’s Animist Blog Carnival (sometime after 1st Oct), c/o Eaarth Animist


(1)Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, Love and Extinction, University of Virginia Press, 2011.

(2) Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005.

(3) Brian Taylor, Birds, Liminality, and Human Transformation: An Animist Perspective on New Animism, in The Pomegranate, 14.1 (2012) 108-127.

(4) Brian Cox, The Wonders of Life, Harper Collins/B.B.C. 2013.

(5) B.B.C News, 13/8/13, and (consulted 26/9/13).

(6) Pat Bracken and Phil Thomas, Postpsychiatry, Mental Health in a Postmodern World, Oxford University Press, 2005.

(7) Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life, the Science of Near Death Experience, HarperCollins 2011.



3 thoughts on “Animism and the Moment of Death

  1. Brian, the story about Samuel is beautiful and moving.

    PS: ‘nothing more than an inanimate bag of chemicals slung on the floor’. ‘Nothing will have left, yet what will be left will no longer be me’.
    Ha! Separation. Will the so-called ‘floor’ (earth) perceive the remains as ‘inanimate bag of chemicals’.
    I dont think so.
    That surely is just a contrary ‘superstion’, draped in a different set of clothes.

  2. Yes, I’ve experienced the power of song to enable travel between the worlds…

    Sorry to hear about Samuel. I guess it’s a small consolation that you were there with him at the end and were able to wish him farewell and a good journey. Looking back on the deaths of the animals I’ve witnessed (I worked with horses for several years) I think understanding the relationships between the worlds would have helped me support them better through illness and death and to deal with my emotions better too.

  3. I really enjoyed your post here. Really deep, informative and moving. I know very well how hard it is to lose a loved animal. I have seen off a dog. Piper, and a cat, Sheba at the vets, watching them ‘seem’ to take a last breath…
    In 2004, I lost a dog, Sophie, to a speeding car after something freaked her out on the park. I always remember. I was reluctant to let her off the lead, because she was getting old and her hearing was off, so when you called her she went running another direction. But this day it was lovely, and I just let he off a bot, and at one post she seemed to sense and body language she was ready to be put on the lead, but I didn’t and then this large dog appeared out of nowhere, she freaked –then the chase and begging her to stop, and then she runs onto road…
    Like you and others say, there are some people who just don’t get how deeply bereaved you feel for a beloved animal. They should know that the very term ‘animal’ derives from *anima* soul

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