Honorable Death

Important In Every Human Culture

The honorable death is an important, albeit very frightening, tradition in almost every human culture that has ever existed, but its practice and style is amazingly varied. In no culture is it taken lightly, of course, and the emotions involved are as intense as any part of humanity. But cultures certainly do have differences in the idea of an honorable death. These differences appear, perhaps, subtle – and even moot – to the casual observer, but understanding them can be of great value to all of humanity. Here is a brief look at the way several of the world’s most important cultures of today have treated the idea of honorable death over the centuries.

The term 'honorable death' carries many different meanings for different cultures

Western Traditions: In European and North American cultures – such as the United States, England and even France and Spain – honorable deaths usually happen without a lot of planning. The firefighters on September 11, 2001 who were headed to the upper floors of the World Trade Center as the buildings came tumbling down are said to have died, by anyone’s standards, an honorable death. But these deaths came upon them unexpectedly. Even an hour before, the firefighters could not have known that they would be called upon to make such a sacrifice of their lives. Yet, when duty called, they did not hesitate to dive into danger. That constant state of readiness to die in the service of others is what defines a hero in Western cultures. It is the trait instilled into soldiers who do not think twice about risking their lives in battle. It is common to police, bodyguards, and other security personnel. It is heroic, and, while suicide is usually not the intention, when death comes, it is widely celebrated as an honorable death.

Asian Traditions: The above definition of honorable death can be said to apply, of course, to all modern, developed traditions. Hero’s who give their lives in the service to others are recognized with honor across the globe. But, in some cultures, the term honorable death also has a more specific – more sinister – meaning. In this time of relative political stability across most of Asia, the tradition of an honorable death in this later sense is rarely practiced (at least not in a highly publicized way as it once was), but it has its roots in the ancient wars and battles that shaped the continent’s modern life. In short, an honorable death according to long-standing Asian traditions is one in which a defeated, captured enemy is given the opportunity to commit suicide in order to salvage his honor. This gruesome event was usually public (except in cases in which strategic circumstances did not allow) and certainly gruesome (at least by modern standards). In a typical ceremony, the defeated man would slice open his abdomen and then bend over to receive his final blow. With a swift chop, a swordsman would behead the man. Even more horrifically in most cases, the swordsman was often a best friend or family member of the enemy who would shortly be given an opportunity for a similar fate.

Some versions of an honorable death can be unbelievable to others

Middle Eastern Traditions: The honorable death described above may be the root of honor deaths, the very controversial – usually illegal – ancient practice that continues today among devote fundamentalist of Islam and other religions centered in the Middle East. Under this horrific tradition, the fathers of women who stray from religious requirements have an obligation to murder their daughters. While much rarer than it once was, this tradition continues to be practiced across the globe in fundamentalist families. In one highly publicized recent case, a young woman in England was strangled in her sleep by her Muslim father who had discovered that she had dated a Christian man. The religious point of this killing was to restore honor to the woman’s soul and to the man’s family.

An honorable death is the stated goal of many men, from warriors to firefighters. And, while sociologists across the world now study the phenomena of this idea, perhaps best explanation for the quest of an honorable death is that such a way of dying gives the ultimate meaning to all life itself.