I was trying this concept out on someone this afternoon. I think the idea has merit. The theory runs like this:
If religion can be defined at all, it seems that it must include a central reference to non-materially-experienced entities and powers. We have to be so vague about what these entities are and aren’t, since some ‘religions’ are largely atheistic, and animism challenges the entire notion of gods and spirits by making them ubiquitous. All religions of which I am aware exert special authority over the rituals of death. Indeed, for Buddhism, that’s the only ritual at which Buddhist monks must be present. It is at this point – religion’s special authority over the dead – that religions separate themselves dramatically from almost all other forms of collective social action. The necrophiliac memorial cultures of nationalism (and, it should be pointed out constantly, many pre-‘modern’ cultures) are something of an exception to this generalized statement, but in precisely a way that tends to confirm the logic of the idea. Why is this important? Because it indicates something crucial about religion: religion, and the clerical classes, derive their authority from the dead, and the dead provide them precisely with the imaginative and creative possibilities of talking about that which is not currently in evidence.
In short, religion is based on the dead.