Understanding Death in Our Lives by Mary Richardson
While traveling in India I met backpackers who shared stories of wonderful and interesting places they had been. This is how I learned of the “City of Thieves, City of Light, City of Death and the City of Final Liberation”: Varanasi. It is thought to be the oldest city in the world and is India’s holy city. The Ganga River flows alongside the city and is sacred to the Hindus. They believe that if a person bathes in the river, it will remit them of their sins, and if they were placed in the river following death it will ensure that their soul was released from the cycle of its transmigrations. For all these reasons and more, Varanasi receives 1 million pilgrims every year.
Arriving in Varanasi, I could not be prepared for the experiences that lay ahead. I walked through the labyrinth of small winding lanes that make up a large portion of the city. It took me a long time to find my hotel, and I became lost multiple times. I also stopped periodically to allow passage for the processions of people carrying their deceased loved ones down to the river. Once I found my hotel and dropped off my backpack, I decided to walk down to the Ganga.
Along my walk I came across a body lying on the ground, wrapped in scarves, with a note that said: this person does not have money to be burned at a cremation site. There were rupees lying atop and around the body. I was astounded and intrigued. Never had I been faced with death in such an open and honest way. Drawing closer to the river, the small winding pathways opened up, and all I could see in front of me were groups of people standing near numerous fires. It was incredulous that the cremation sites consisted merely of fires burning in the open air. No structure closed them in; no walls hid the burning bodies from the eyes of their loved ones. A small Indian boy grabbed my hand and took me into a building. From his broken English I understood that he wanted to take me somewhere for a better view. He meant a better view of the cremation sites, but later I reflected that the view I actually gained was that of death’s reality.
The building was a two-story concrete structure containing no furniture, yet people sitting and lying in every open space. Once we reached the second floor, the walls opened up to a wonderful view of the river and directly below were the continuous burning fires of the cremation sites. The surrounding people were not interested in the view, and I could not comprehend why they were in this building; sleeping, eating, talking, or simply sitting in silence. It is here that the boy tried to explain that all the people in this building had traveled from all over India to reach the holy city of Varanasi in time to die.
There were buildings like these all over Varanasi full of people waiting to die in their holy city, in hopes of being put into the river in order to attain liberation for their soul. As I looked around in amazement, I realized that some of these people had made their long and hard journey with their families alongside them. Family and friends surrounded and supported them now as they prepared for their after-life journey, just as they had been supported in their journey through life. Death was not seen as sad or taboo here. It was part of living and it was there out in the open for everyone to accept.
When I returned to the United States, I began to realize how our culture is so consumed with living that it does everything it can to hide the reality of death. Many of our elderly are put in nursing homes, safely tucked away from society. We do not talk about death, and for many, it is our biggest fear. I realized that my own fear of death was related to my lack of experience with it, which was cultivated and maintained through our culture’s perception and fear.
In an effort to confront my own fears of death, I began to work in hospice care and spent time visiting with patients. In most cases, the patient’s medical needs were taken care of by the nursing homes or home health care nurses, and so my role in their life was simply to listen and provide companionship. I found that all of my patients yearned for someone to talk to and craved this interaction. Most of them told stories of their lives and many spoke of their impending death. It was obvious that all of these people needed and wanted to discuss the journey ahead of them, either because they were scared, curious or prepared for what lay ahead, and yet they had no one with whom to share these overwhelming feelings. Their families were mourning and afraid, and did not want to hear about their loved ones dying. For most of these people, death was swept under the rug and this was reflected in the sadness in their eyes as they traveled this path alone.
These experiences have led me to believe that if our culture accepted the reality of death, as in other cultures, our elderly and dying would greatly benefit. Our elders would be more appreciated for their life lessons and experience, honored and revered rather than being an unwanted reminder of death. In such a world, the number of elderly in nursing homes might decrease and they would receive better care. In India, it is not standard care to send the elderly to nursing homes. Instead they are cared for by their families. The family appreciates the elder member for all the life experiences and lessons they gained through their many years of living. Not only do the elderly in this culture feel appreciated and loved during their last years on this planet, but also leave peacefully knowing they are surrounded by family and friends willing to accept and support the journey to come.
If the dying were allowed to express their wishes surrounding their passing with their family and loved-ones, they would die feeling loved and supported rather than alone and fearful. If more people died in this way, it would change our culture by decreasing the fear and pervading negativity associated with death. There could be a profound, lasting shift in our culture. It seems that by accepting death, as in other cultures, we could stand to enrich our lives and the lives of others.