Death as Meaning

Light of truth

Prema Jayakumar

A dear and much younger friend died recently, prompting this meditation on what death means. I don’t mean any of those questions that mankind have asked themselves and to which religions have tried to give answers: whether there is life after death, whether death is the end, whether there is heaven and hell, whether there is rebirth, all those. Sharper brains and better minds have debated the questions. Saints, sages, prophets have asked and some have provided answers. Hindu puranas have the figure of the young Nachiketas, who does penance and will not be turned aside from his quest for the meaning of life and death for fear or favour. But that is philosophy. My meditation is on what death of someone close means to the survivors. What does death in his or her immediate surroundings, be it that of a family member or a close friend, mean to an ordinary person?

There is, of course, the sharp sense of loss (if there isn’t an immediate sense of relief, depending on the person!). There is almost always a sense of guilt, for all those words you should have spoken and didn’t, for all those actions you should have done and didn’t, for the sharp words that you did speak. For most people, if you are a person who cares for others, all deaths in the circle of loved ones does involve guilt. Then there are the regrets, the questions they knew the answers to and you didn’t ask in time, the stories that have died with them, even something as simple as the recipe for that favourite curry that you didn’t write down. One believes that the people around one are immortal, you see and that there is always another day for those doubts. If you have lived long with someone who died recently, you find yourself turning round to pass a comment, ask a question, share a thought and find blankness. The absence is suddenly a shock.

Of course, there is the white washing effect of death, nil nisi bonum etc., and the dead suddenly lose a number of the faults you used to find very irritating. They also acquire a lot of virtues they would not have recognized as belonging to themselves when they were alive. As for some, being dead is only a relative condition, they acquire more power than the living! After the first few days, when they are acknowledged as lost, they reshape themselves, becoming so flexible that two sides to an argument can use them to support their own stand! The survivors use the dear departed as the clinching argument to close any dispute. Haven’t you heard them? ‘Father would have said so,’ go they.

All religions have tried to make death a significant occasion, a religious one. The deathbed was a place dense with meaning, with invisible presences, both good and bad, a place for one to reflect on a life well or ill spent. Mourning too had its rituals, its significant days, its gatherings. The gathering together of people who had something to do with the departed, the consolation offered to the newly bereaved, the eating together which signified a social commitment to the family – all these are part of the rituals that eased the return to ordinary life. These observances provided a break, when one could mourn the dead, without having to worry about the routine of daily life. Then, one could go back to normalcy, ‘calm of mind, all mourning spent,’ to misquote, without feeling guilty. You see, mourning is not just grieving. It is looking at your sorrow, naming your pain, learning how to cope with it.

Every death is loss, every death is guilt, every death is regret. But finally, every death is a reminder, that you have only so much life, a few decades, to spend usefully – so use it, don’t waste it. A reminder to live life as though today is your last day, to try not to do anything that you might regret at the end of the day, at the end of your life, to try to make the day pleasant for yourself and those around you. As the philosopher poet Poonthanam put it:

When we come here we must come here alone
And when we go hence we must go alone.
Between those lonely passages we stand:
Why must we fight our fellow-man?

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