How has the definition of death changed through the years and how does it vary across cultures?
Definition of death changed through the years
Death is a concept. It is formed through ideas, beliefs and attitudes of people. For example, a person that would be unconscious to a group of scientists would be considered dead by a group of people living Vanatinai, a small island near Papua New Guinea. It varies from culture to culture and to many could be either the absence of life or the simple fact that one is in a coma. Of course, the idea of death has changed throughout the years as humans have become more intelligent, changed their beliefs and their attitude towards Science.
Back in the past, the people of then were far from as knowledgeable or resourceful or even as flexible in their thinking and beliefs when compared to the people of today. If one was in a coma, they would probably be treated as dead but if they were still breathing then they would try their best to get the man in coma to be resuscitated. Although medical treatments were not properly worked out then and technology was not as advanced, if a man's heart was pumping or if he was breathing - he's alive. If not - he's dead. Just because one was Brain-dead(although a term as such was unlikely to exist back in the day) does not mean he is dead. Back in the past, all they needed to prove you were still alive, was the fact that you were still breathing.
Today, a person is considered dead if they are legally dead. This could mean that one is medically dead(his body being unable to function at all) or just Brain-dead, both of which would mean that one is dead - or at least thought to be so today. While there are many ethical issues concerning being Brain-dead to be legally dead, it is generally the consensus today that the policy of being Brain-dead would be equivalent to being dead.
The definition of being dead today however has a big flaw. The definition of death could vary from profession to profession in the field of Sciences. For example, being Brain-dead to a cardiologist would not mean that a person is dead as to him a person being dead would most probably be one's heart stopping and being unable to be restarted. However, a neurologist would probably have a different opinion on the matter. Let's go back to the past again to see how the method of defining whether one was dead was found. Back then in order to define whether a person is dead, the people would most likely use a set of criteria to define whether one is dead. Whether a key central organ of a human was working was probably included in the criteria, and as for that, they might have used the heart or the lungs. Today, we use the brain. Our argument being that it makes our decisions for us, controls our action and is somewhat the core of everything we ever do and without it we would not matter. The big issue of using this criteria was that there always seemed to be an exception. Take for instance, the method used today, whether one is Brain-dead or not, the major flaw being that the heart might still be beating.
All in all, the definition of death has not changed much throughout the ages. It is all basically whether a major organ has stopped working and whether it could be restarted. However, there is no solid way to determine and define death. A way to define death would be to say that is the absence of life, but then we would have to define life, which is almost impossible. In conclusion, there is no definitive standard for being dead or which organ stopping it's functions would be responsible for a person being called 'dead'(for instance a heart may not be beating but to a cell biologist he might want to see all cells dead).
Varying across cultures:
The center of many traditions, organizations or customs have different features but one very glaring feature of every culture around the world is the topic of death. Some of which revolves around care of the dead, the afterlife and the disposal of the bodies after certain steps/rituals have been carried out.
Disposal of human corpses in general, begin with the last offices() before significant time has passed, and ritualistic ceremonies often occur, most commonly interment or cremation. Though this is not a unified practice, For instance, in Tibet, the body is given a sky burial and left on a mountain top. Mummification or embalming is also prevalent in some cultures, to reduce the rate of decay. Legal aspects of death are also part of many cultures, particularly the settlement of the deceased estate and the issues of inheritance and in some countries, inheritance taxation. Another proper preparation for death and techniques and ceremonies for producing the ability to transfer one's spiritual attainments into another body (reincarnation) are subjects of detailed study in Tibet. An example of modern day death disposal is in Brazil. In Brazil, a human death is counted officially when it is registered by existing family members at a cartório, a government-authorized registry. Before being able to file for an official death, the deceased must have been registered for an official birth at the cartório. Though the Public Registry Law guarantees all Brazilian citizens the right to register deaths, regardless of their financial circumstances, of their family members though the government has not taken away the hidden fees for filing a death which leads to impoverished families having their own, unofficial, local and cultural burial.
In the modern world, death is usually reserved as the capital punishment where, in most jurisdictions, the death penalty is reserved for premeditated murder, espionage, treason, or as part of military justice. In many countries, drug trafficking and sexual crimes such as adultery also carry the death penalty as do religious crimes such as apostasy(the abandonment of belief). For example, human trafficking and serious cases of corruption in China are also punished by the death penalty. Where as, in militaries around the world, courts-martial have imposed death sentences for offenses such as cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny. Death in warfare and in suicide attack also have cultural links, and ideas like mutiny are punishable by death, grieving relatives of dead soldiers and death notification are also embedded in many cultures.
The topic of death also includes the topic of suicide, suicide in general, and particularly euthanasia, are also points of cultural debate. Both acts are understood very differently in different cultures. In Japan, for example, ending a life with honor by seppuku was considered a desirable death, whereas according to traditional Christian and Islamic cultures, suicide is viewed as a sin. Death is also personified in many cultures, with symbolic representations as the Grim Reaper, Azrael and Father Time.
All in all, the topic of death and witnessing it is a difficult issue with most cultures. Western societies may like to treat the dead with the utmost material respect, with an official embalmer and associated rites. While eastern societies (like Indian) may be more open to accepting it with a funeral procession of the dead body ending in an open air burning-to-ashes.