Zen and the art of dying ? De-constructing the cultural norms and aesthetics of death talk

Photo courtesy: Guardian.com
Photo courtesy: Guardian.com

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to live “ – Marcus Aurelius.

I want you to reflect on this positive, life-enforcing thought before I get into discussing death. Close your eyes for a minute and take the time to be thankful for your life. I am sure there are a few things that you are grateful for, no matter how miserable, poor, constricting your life is, or on the contrary how rich, full and abundant it is. No matter what, I believe we have to be thankful for one thing – the gift of life.

Having said that, I must admit that there is too much death in the air, this winter. Right from the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School a week ago, which claimed 26 innocent people in a school in Connecticut, to talks of the world ending (the infamous Mayan prophecy), there seems to be a lot of morbidity in the air. I am even noticing books on death. Not surprisingly, I walked into the library today, and noticed “Mortality,” a book based on the account of Christopher Hitchens’s last days of battle with Cancer, before he died. And less than a week ago, I received an email from dear friend, who I have known for a few years now. She was writing to say a final “goodbye” before dying. While it shocked me initially and kept me awake for two straight nights, I eventually made peace with her mortality (and partly, my own), to the extent that I could function normally. When I got my bearings right, I learnt more details of her illness and only now have I come to terms with the fact that  though she is terminally ill, there are some things that I can do to help her, ease her suffering.

The media is also abuzz with follow-up stories of the kids who died at Sandy Hook and the reactions of various stake-holders to it. Social media is also active with anti-gun law talk, of how violence is becoming all pervasive and how NRA and its supporters simply don’t “get it”. On the other end of the spectrum are talks about how drones are killing hundreds of innocent children in Pakistan and it is the US which is the aggressor there and clearly no Americans are showing any remorse or regret at this. There is talk of hypocrisy and double-standards in measuring the value of lives, depending on where you are. Irrespective of this, talk of death and end of life is in the air.

Amidst all this, is the question of how one should talk of death, how our culture(s) honor death and what is ok when it comes to the process of dying itself ? How should people around a terminally ill/ dying person talk about death and what about instances of accidents/ homicides ? What are the norms of “death talk” and how can we dignify the dying person?

Dealing with death : The East-West divide ?

Christopher Hitchens in his short book “Mortality” talks about his last few months of life as he battles Cancer. This paragraph in the book is poignant, as it is powerful :” Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring in a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”

There seem to be clear distinctions between how death is seen across the East, West divide. Sorry to be putting these two large buckets to classify such complex cultures across the world, but it may help to look at some distinctions, without making very broad generalizations.

One of my favorite Hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad ) is :” “Conduct yourself in this world as if you are here to stay forever, and yet prepare for eternity as if you are to die tomorrow.”  Islam, treats death as a natural occurrence and something which one must not be afraid of. It is to be faced with equanimity and stoicism. There are numerous Hadiths of the prophet extolling believers to pray for the deceased and also various customs and traditions, which involve visiting the grave yards before important festivals. Death is a fairly public affair and everyone is consciously aware of it, and partakes in the ceremonies.

While some cultures mourn the dead, others celebrate death, seeing it as a transitory phase, one which should be welcomed. I remember taking part in a “death ceremony” of sorts in Bali, Indonesia, when I visited the beautiful island way back in 2008. Held with great festivities and celebration, this marks the transition of the body and soul for the Balinese people and the entire village takes place in this ceremony. In fact, we, as tourists were invited to take part in these celebrations and I must admit it felt more like a happy festival, than a ceremony marking someone’s death.

It is not a private affair as in the western world. Infact just yesterday, I was chatting with a friend, on the way home. When she told me that her parents had passed away a few years ago and she was going to visit her brother over Christmas, I told her that I was sorry to hear that. In fact, she brought up the issue of death as something that her friends just didn’t talk about and it also amazed her that the culture that she had grown up (she is American) does not discuss, talk about death in a public way. It is considered a private realm and only the immediate family and friends are invited to participate in it.

That brings me to another interesting observation: It is more than five years since I have attended a funeral. Not a single one in the U.S and it is about the same time since I have attended or seen a new born. It seems like I have been cut off from life’s most defining moments. Living outside my home country has effectively deprived me of this connection to “real” life.

Pop-culture and death-talk in the west

I am reminded of The last lecture – by Prof. Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who died of Pancreatic Cancer a few years, made famous with his “The Last Lecture” and the book of the same name, also advocated for research on Pancreatic cancer.  While for some this comes across as too sugar-coated, and Hitchens mentions this in his book, saying:” Pausch’s video has so much sugar, that it may go with a warning: you may need a shot of insulin to withstand it”. But between his cynicism and Paushch’s over-optimism, there is a middle ground. And that is provided in a sobering note by none other than Steve Jobs, Apple’s iconic founder.

Steve Jobs spoke of death at Stanford University Commencement ceremony in 2005, where he poignantly said:” Remembering that I will be dead soon has helped me make the big choices. All external expectations, pride – fall away in the face of death. Knowing you are going to die soon is the best way to get out of the trap that you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart”.

From what I have seen so far, death-talk in the west does not happen too often, and even if it does, it is terms of a consolation or perhaps at best trying to frame the talk around some religious construct. Death somehow is brushed under the carpet, and not dealt with in the same manner that Jobs advocated.


What to do when someone is dying?

While I have no substantial experience helping people who are dying, I do have some “common-sense” notions of what to do when you learn when someone is dying. No matter what, or who it is, the thing NOT to do is to ignore the news, or deny the person the opportunity to talk about it. That is clearly the most inhuman and ignorant thing to do. But from what I have heard, some people tend to do the same. They ignore the news or the person altogether, because it is “too much to handle”. I have two stories related to such behavior.

It may perhaps even help to find out one can help, not necessarily financially but also in terms of simple tasks or other ways to help the person deal with life and its complexities, while one is still alive.

Speaking of being in-discreet, Hitchens mentions an incident when a woman walked up to him at a book-store and informed that her cousin had died of cancer, and it was an excruciating and lonely death also because he had been homosexual and his family had disowned him. Clearly, not an inspiring or positive story and not certainly something you would tell a man who has cancer. He adds :” This was a surprisingly exhausting encounter, without which I could easily have done. It made me wonder if perhaps if there was room for a short hand book of cancer etiquette.”  Perhaps there is and may be he should have written one, considering how indiscreet some people can be.

To sum up, I will borrow Jobs’ words, when he said :” Death is the best change agent and perhaps the best invention. It clears the way for the new, right now the new is you. Your time is limited, so don’t live others lives.”

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