Review – Inventing Afterlives (Camille Grace Leon Angelo)

Inventing Afterlives: The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Life After Death. Janes, Regina M. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2018. 384 pages. ISBN: 9780231185714.

Why do we form beliefs about the afterlife? What cultural work do these beliefs perform? In her beautifully written, learned book, Inventing Afterlives, Regina Janes proposes answers to these questions. Janes boldly traverses across diverse temporal and geographic contexts —ranging from ancient Egyptians to eighteenth-century Britain — and engages with an array of individuals varying from modern-day creatives like Spike Jonze to ancient celebrities like Homer to discern how and why humans imagine life after death. The book is essentially flawless outside of a few problematic assumptions in Chapter 1.

Janes argues that afterlives, the stories about life after death, have cognitive origins. According to Janes, this cognition is not isolated, as cognitive studies often theorize, but socialized. Because of how humans understand causality and agency, when a socialized individual dies, their dead, unresponsive body prompts their community to ask what “happened to the life that animated this body”? [1] She claims that the practice of constructing stories about where their dead journey and the worlds in which they reside after they leave, thus, fulfills this cognitive demand on the community that the dead body generates. According to Janes, afterlives serve the same purpose as funerary rites — to boost community cohesion and to mitigate the threat of group fragmentation that the social injury of death poses.

In Chapter 1, Janes lays out her point of departure: the anachronistic understandings about the nature of afterlife belief, which scholars apply to cultures universally despite the fact that they originate in Enlightenment-era discourse about the afterlife. These misconceptions include that communities throughout time universally believed an afterlife existed, always wished for immortality, and imagined morality as inextricable from life after death. Janes contends these presumptions gloss over the differences between the disparate and diverse afterlives which emerge “over time within and between cultures.” [2]

Chapter 1 then draws on cognitive science and primatology to attempt to begin problematizing two of these key Enlightenment notions about afterlives: that “afterlives are necessary for morality” and that “afterlives are a construct of power to control the minds and behavior of the living.” [3] Janes argues that the complex understandings of morality predate afterlife beliefs. She attempts to sever the connection between morality and death by citing primatological evidence, which indicates that despite the fact that primates possess “the basic elements of human morality and immortality” they do not treat their dead differently based on how they lived. [4] While this argument is fascinating, it is not persuasive.

Beyond stating that “funerary rituals…. always presuppose” afterlife beliefs, Janes does not explain how the absence of differentiated treatment of the dead equates to the absence of belief in the afterlife. Instead, she assumes beliefs underlie practice – a notion undermined by decades of scholarship, which emphasizes the power of habituated practice in informing and shaping belief and underscores the dialectical relationship between the two.

A second problematic argument follows as Janes seeks to deploy archaeological evidence to dispel the notion that afterlives “are a construct of power to control the minds and behavior of the living.” She supposes that the existence of funerary deposits is a reliable indication of a community’s belief in the afterlife, but archaeologists have shown that this is not consistently the case.

The archaeological evidence Janes cites, such as the presence of opulent grave goods in the tombs of Afghan nomadic tribes and their absence from the burials of their first-century wealthier, urban counterparts, only demonstrates that there was no apparent correlation in this context between social organization and mortuary practice; she does not consider that these practices might be a product of non-discursive practices and long-standing traditions, whose original meanings might not even be clear to the community responsible for the internment themselves.

Chapter 2 continues on surer footing, and the remainder of the book sparkles. Janes expounds with master on the representations of afterlives in the literature of Ancient Egypt, Sumer, Israel, Greece, and Rome in Chapter 2. Her decision to end the chapter when Christianity begins because “familiar afterlives have long obscured their antecedents” is applaudable. [5] Her diachronic approach to this material enables her to thoughtfully trace the ways in which premortem behavior and quality of afterlife gradually became linked in Ancient Egypt and Classical literature, but not in Sumerian and Babylonian discourse. She tracks this development in ancient Egyptian culture by showing the increasing role that judgment plays in depictions of the Osirian Judgement from its earliest portrayal in the Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom Egypt — where Osiris vindicates the deceased from the accusations brought against him to ensure his safe journey to the afterlife — to the tradition’s fully developed form in the Book of the Dead papyri of the New Kingdom, where Osiris and a council of divine beings judge the quality of the deceased’s life to determine the quality of life they would have in the hereafter.

Applying the same approach to the literature of Ancient Greece and Rome, Janes illustrates that by introducing the new ideology of judgment on a moral basis in the afterlife, in which moral people were rewarded and immoral people were punished, philosophers like Lucretius and Plato distinctly diverged from their predecessor Homer’s portrayals of the underworld, which lacked any conception of judgment on a moral basis. Janes’s forceful analysis thus reinforces her argument that morality and justice neither consistently appear in the stories cultures tell about death, nor are universally understood to determine the quality of afterlife that an individual received. By highlighting the fact that, of these traditions, only Egypt’s did not imagine the afterlife as utterly grim and miserable, Janes banishes one more notion produced by the Enlightenment understanding of the afterlife — that afterlife beliefs emerge to comfort the dying and people grieving a loss.

In Chapter 3, Janes picks up several thousand miles east with the imaginations of the afterlife which emerge from communities in southeast Asia. She begins by considering the diverse ways belief in karmic rebirth shape the narratives that Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu communities construct about the new existences, the heavens, the hells, and the possible liberation and nirvana that may follow death. Turning to communities who believe in rebirth enables Janes to problematize the application of the term “afterlife” and the finality of death that it presupposes to communities for whom death is not terminal and /or for whom rebirth is possible.

Her introduction to karmic rebirth distinguishes between the way morality operates in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions, in which adherents are punished for their transgressions, and how it functions in traditions of ethicized rebirth, which “makes individuals as responsible for the past as their immediate feature, and the futures that follow their death.” [6] In the remainder of the chapter, Janes introduces four historical contexts where diverse systems of thought converged to produce ideas about the afterlife that transcend religious traditions. Beginning with China before the introduction of Buddhism, Janes introduces her reader to Confucianism and Daoism, before considering later traditions of the afterlife that emerge in China with the introduction of Buddhism.

Janes then presents a brief, articulate, and accessible reading of the eighth-century text, the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bar do thos-grol chen-mo (The Great Liberation in the Intermediate State through Hearing), before turning to Japan. She traces beliefs in the afterlife that develop prior to and after the introduction of Buddhism to the region in the mid-sixth century into the early modern period. She ends with a fascinating encounter between Buddhism and Christianity in a sixteenth-century text defending Christian notions of the afterlife, produced by Fukansai Habian — a former Zen monk who converted to Christianity and became a member of the Jesuit brotherhood

In Chapter 4, Janes revisits the conceptions of the hereafter invented by British thinkers during the Enlightenment. The afterlife innovation of particular interest to Janes here is the “wish-fulfilling afterlife” — an afterlife of eternal happiness open to all, in which human desires were fulfilled by God’s benevolence and families and friends were reunited. Masterfully charting the re-imagination of the hereafter marked by the deemphasis on hell in the cultural discourse of eighteenth-century Britain, Janes traces these developments to religious laypeople — often women — who reframed the Christian afterlife in popular discourse, which was later adopted into the mainstream theology.

Janes connects this development in the imagination of the afterlife to the cultural, intellectual, and economic changes of the High Enlightenment period, which resulted in the “diminishing of the secular power of the church,” the repositioning of Christian faith along rational lines, and a departure from Theocentrism. [7] Janes suggests that the ideas and desires about heaven and afterlife that emerged transcended traditional religious structures and appealed to people across secular British society. She attributes this to an epistemological shift, which gave scientific knowledge and self-knowledge authority

In Chapter 5, Janes returns to the early twenty-first century to consider what cultural work presentations of belief and disbelief in the afterlife perform in contemporary society. She examines six works of literary fiction and film, which originate from across the globe and “have almost nothing in common” except that they all reimagine the afterlife in terms of the people whom the deceased leaves behind and through whom life continues. Janes analyzes film with the same dexterity with which she approaches literature. Her powerful exposition of both the visual and narratives qualities of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Wandafuru Raifu showcases the ways in which the films convey the “social construction of self as imbricated with others.” [8]

Janes ends the chapter with a brief but insightful analysis of several of Samuel Beckett’s short plays, which feature characters who adamantly reject the existence of an afterlife. As she conveys, Beckett’s characters’ disbelief in the afterlife constitutes a belief about what comes after death. Through this belief, Beckett’s characters not only highlight their own morality but also convey the same message about the inter-personal nature of the world we inhabit, as Jonze and Kore-eda articulate. Janes closes her phenomenal book with the reminder that the stories we tell ourselves and others about life after death embody and communicate notions about the worlds which we occupy and the codes of behavior by which we exist.

This book, which travels time and disciplines, cannot be ignored. Scholars and students of sociology, anthropology, religion, and cultural history will find Inventing Afterlives particularly useful for developing new approaches to conceptualizing and interrogating beliefs in the hereafter. Janes’s study strips away theological and anachronistic understandings about belief in life after death, leaving us with a productive framework with which to question the validity of both our own assumptions about the afterlife and those of other scholars.

Camille Grace Leon Angelo is a MAVCOR graduate associate and a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. 

[1] Janes, Inventing Afterlives: The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Life After Deathxii.

[2] Ibid., 24.

[3] Ibid., xii.

[4] Ibid., 26.

[5] Ibid., 30.

[6] Ibid., 133.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] Ibid., 278.

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