Death in Different Cultural Perceptions

Topics: Behavior

There is an inevitable end for everyone, and that is, death. However, there are many different attitudes towards death within different cultural and religious backgrounds. The character Augustine in The Confessions deal with death with fear and grief whereas the characters in Beowulf fully accepts death as their fate that they are brave and ready to face death. The reason for this to occur is because of the variation of the different cultural background set of the two presented texts.

The character Augustine deals with death with sorrow and fear, even though the narrator Augustine may treat the grief as moral imperfection.

When a dear friend of Augustine in Thagaste dies in Book IV, he feels “black grief closed over my heart and whenever I looked I saw only death” and “my native land was a torment to me and my father’s house unbelievable misery” (Augustine, The Confessions, Book IV, 4, 9.). This shows his deep sorrow upon his friend’s death—this grief is so strong that it takes over his life for a while.

After weeping and indulging himself in the grief of a loss of a beloved friend, Augustine realizes “although my weariness with living was intense, so was my fear of dying”(Augustine, The Confessions, Book IV, 6, 11.).

This indicates that he realizes he is afraid of death in that it takes away his beloved ones from him. He deals with death with great sorrow and fear. On the other side, Augustine the narrator (by narrator I mean not completely Augustine the writer, but rather the literary voice that is heard when we read the text out loud) finds the grief bothering which he states “ I was gravely displeased to find how powerfully I could be affected by these human experiences, which in the due order of things and as a consequence of our natural condition are bound to occur” (Augustine, The Confessions, Book IX, 12, 31.

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) He is upset with the mortal human feelings that takes control over him upon his mother’s death even though he clearly knows her godly soul will then remain with the divine forever. The narrator then talks to God directly, “you were reminding me that any sort of habit is bondage, even to a mind no longer feeding on deceitful words” (Augustine, The Confessions, Book IX, 12, 32.). This shows his distress towards himself of not completely freeing from the habits—the mortal human chains that he thinks vanquished in him in Book VIII. It shows that such grief, even though is natural and due to order of things, is moral imperfection and is presented as an ungodly human flaw in this mortal life. The narrator presents a rather rational and indifferent tune towards death in the book comparing to the character itself, whereas the character basks himself in sorrow and fear of death taking away his beloved ones.

On the other hand, the characters in Beowulf have a completely different attitude that they fully accepts death as an inevitable fate, which as a result, they are rather indifferent or fearless towards death. Even in the very beginning of the book, the author writes about the scene of a king’s funeral that the king was “thriving when his time came and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping” (Beowulf, 26-27). This word choice “thriving” suggests that the king Shield died at a rather young age but at a glorious time of his life; this neutral, even positive word used along with the description of the death later implies the impending death which neither does it show any sorrow nor does it indicate hatred towards death. Later in the book, the definition of death is given as “whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgement by God.” (Beowulf, 440-441) which suggests the irresistible fate of death for everyone in the matter of time under God’s demand, and there is nothing man can do to avoid it.

Since death is inevitable, the characters in Beowulf accepts the fate and faces death courageously, even indifferently. When Beowulf is preparing his battle with Grendel, all of the people including himself do not “expected he would ever see/ his homeland again or get back/……/ They knew too well the way it was before,/ how often the Danes had fallen prey/ to death in the mead-hall.” (Beowulf, 691-696). Beowulf does not anticipate victory over his upcoming battle with Grendel, instead, he come into battle with the faith of facing highly possible death. This in return, along with the belief that death is an inescapable end, liberates him from fear of death when he confronts Grendel and boosts him in courage in fighting. After all, when one accepts the worse that is to come, what else is left there to be afraid of to drags the person down? With this mindset, the characters in Beowulf presents a rather different attitude towards death comparing to that of Augustine’s: they view death as an inevitable for everyone and so they face it fearlessly and without grief.

The reason for this discrepancy between attitudes towards death in the two books can relate back to the two different cultural and religious background where the books are set. The Confessions is mainly on the conversion of an educated scholar to Christianity. He represents a disciple kind of character; despite his faith and pursue for the divine, he is mortal human and have many uncontrollable human emotions and flaws. On the other hand, the characters in Beowulf do not show belief in Christianity, but rather, the belief of god as the controller of fate and fate is beyond human power. In this case, Beowulf shows a kind of Jesus character that he is fully aware of his fate and final destination in life, and he is willing to sacrifice to make the most of his life for his people as well as his country.

Despite his conversion to Christianity and his devotion to God in the end, Augustine starts as an educated scholar that he is conflicting about the existence of God and how to properly follow God. This complex cultural background gives him the sorrow upon the passing away of his beloved ones as he often questions the existence of God and his own human emotions and habits often drags him down on his way of pursuing the ultimate divinity. Augustine questions the existence of God directly after his friend’s death “I thought about you you did not seem to be anything solid or firm”(Augustine, The Confessions, Book IV, 4, 9.), for his friend was a good and loyal Christian but still passes away from incident.

His belief in God shatters which leads to more misery because the belief of the soul goes to heaven and will be forever peaceful with the divine come to a doubt too. The background of Augustine determines his sorrow and fear towards death because of his belief in God is not firm and strong yet. Beyond the sorrow of loss of loved ones, his also has a higher level of sorrow resulting from death as he says “the woe I felt over my woe was yet another woe, and I was distressed by this double sadness”(Augustine, The Confessions, Book IX, 12, 31.). In this case, he resents himself of his doubt of God and his uncontrollable ungodly human emotions in his pursue of true Christianity, which adds on to his grief of death. In all, his background of not starting as a Christian but slowly converting to Christianity gives him many inner conflicts and thus leads to different levels of sorrow and misery.

In contrary to Augustine, the characters in Beowulf lives in a pre-christianity culture that believes in fate and glory as a way to remain alive. In the book, the author makes a very interesting correlation between the banquet and death that he states “a destination already ordained/ where the body, after the banqueting,/ sleeps on its deathbed.” (Beowulf, 1005-1007). This is very revealing since banqueting is a day to day norm for the medieval warriors, and as the contrast presented in the lines, so as death. Both are normal occasions for the Geat and Dane warriors on a daily basis which supports the character’s fearless attitude toward death—it is normal and inevitable.

Beyond just accepting it, the characters sometimes may even voluntarily invoke or chase events that ultimately cause death. This can be explained by another aspect of the Pagan culture, that is, the belief of glory and reputation as a way to prolong life after death. As stated in the book “For every one of us, living in this world/ means waiting for our end. Let whoever can/ win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,/ that will be his best and only bulwark.’ (Beowulf, 1384-1389), it can be seen that a warrior’s reputation and glory he has done before death are the only way to keep him alive, in terms of living in people’s memories and stories, after he dies. In contrast to The Confessions, they are not trying to get into heaven or have their soul to be with the divine in their afterlife, but rather, they are trying to leave great stories of their glory and bravery to the world and future generations.

Some may argue that through his conversion, Augustine manages to overcome grief and fear of death. When his mother passes away, Augustine’s “tear welled up, but in response to a ferocious command from my mind my eyes held the fount in check until it dried up” as he firmly believes “she neither died in misery not died altogether” (Augustine, The Confessions, Book IX, 12, 29.).

He holds his sorrow and tries to be optimistic since he knows his mother is not dead, but rather, her soul is going to a peaceful and godly place. In other people’s eyes, Augustine “felt no pain” (Augustine, The Confessions, Book IX, 12, 31.), which may suggests that he has overcome the human emotions that obstacles his pursue of eternal divine ideals. However, this is not completely convincing. Augustine the character, when he is alone, confesses to God that he “ knew myself what I was suppressing in my heart”(Augustine, The Confessions, Book IX, 12, 31.). He still feels the emotions and misery no matter what his mind tells him what is right to do; he cannot get rid of the natural and human parts of him. The narrative later adjusts this appearance of emotion by stating that the nature of grief is ingrained in human and it is not a simple moral imperfection one can get rid of along the way of a mortal life. Augustine argues that we should all learn to overcome this human feelings, but it is highly impossible and he himself, after long self-inspection and conversation with God, still struggles to accomplish it.

To put it briefly, the different cultural backgrounds for the characters in the two books give them two completely different attitudes towards death. While influenced by his own cultural background and Christianity, Augustine suffers sorrow and fear in face of death, although his ability of dealing with emotions enhanced through his conversion to Christianity. Characters in Beowulf, on the other hand, treats death as a ultimate destination and accepts it with no fear due to the warrior and Pagan culture of the story.

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Death in Different Cultural Perceptions. (2021, Feb 08). Retrieved from

Death in Different Cultural Perceptions
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