Mainstream

Home > 2020 > Trivialisation of death: With dignity gone, Covid has reduced it to a (...)

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 30, New Delhi, July 11, 2020

Trivialisation of death: With dignity gone, Covid has reduced it to a statistical abstraction | Avijit Pathak

Saturday 11 July 2020, by Avijit Pathak

Death, thy servant, is at my door. He has crossed the unknown sea and brought thy call to my home. — Rabindranath Tagore

Is it that in the age of the Covid, death has lost its meaning, dignity and poetic wonder? As the virus spreads, hospitals are burdened with infected patients and crematoriums become unmanageable, we engage with death through numbers. Death becomes statistical abstraction: faceless, anonymous and devoid of a meaning. As fearful beings, we have already stigmatised the patients; and when they die in absolute isolation without prayers and the healing touch of the loved ones, government officials just modify the statistical tabulation for the press note. And even their last journeys to the crematoriums become traumatic.

Let a meaningful death—rather than a meaningless survival in isolation—prepare the ground for the creation of a new society filled with love and togetherness.

But then, death, as poets and mystics have repeatedly stated, has its meaning and dignity. And if our eyes are truly open, we can also experience the beauty of death: the way we see an amazing sunset, a leaf falling from a tree with a rhythmic dance, or a Buddha closing his eyes with absolute tranquility. Death is implicit in birth. To live intensely is to die meaningfully. And hence, death, far from being ugly, is a song, a prayer, or an experience of the tide merging into the ocean. No wonder, Tagore could say: All the sweet vintage of all my autumn days and summer nights, all the earnings and gleanings of my busy life I will place before him at the close of my days when death will knock at my door.

However, the fact is that most of us fear death. And death is always associated with pain, trauma and loss. True, disease and illness inflict intense pain in human bodies; moreover, the experience of being objectified (or reduced into a set of parameters like the pathological report and MRI imageries) in a modern hospital, the coldness of the medical gaze, and the isolation of the ICU further cause fear. And our modern education has never made us comfortable with the death question. We postpone it, avoid it, and we are trained to live with false dualities: activity and silence, living and dying, light and darkness, finite and infinite, and substance and void. Hence, we live with ignorance or superficial excitement; and we die with fear. We are not supposed to welcome death when it comes. It is only a medical discourse; it has to be ‘certified’ by a health professional, and recorded in a government register.

And today as the virus has further trivialised death, we need to go deeper, redefine ourselves, and reimagine human relationships. I wish to make two points. First, death is not a statistical abstraction. The fact is that a mother dies, a brother dies, a doctor dies, a comrade dies, a neighbour dies; in fact, we die. There is no ‘other’ that dies. In every death, we can feel our own fragrance: the way we create and love, struggle and work, sing and dance, and suffer and celebrate. And hence, we should not allow death to be deprived of grace, meaning and dignity. Imagine what is happening these days: bodies are stacked up in vans, and are given hurried farewells; or the way many bodies were being sent back to the morgues because the crematoriums were unable to manage the load. Furthermore, as the fear of the virus has legitimised ‘distancing’, there is no friend who can stand in front of the grieved family, pray, and sing in silence: Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haaye/kabhi toh hasaaye/kabhi yeh rulaaye.

Indeed, this sort of death, and the complete disappearance of collective prayers have ruined the very morale of society. Even though we try to survive biologically, we are spiritually finished and crippled. Bodies are taken to crematoriums and burial grounds; and others watch TV channels, consume the statistics of death, and somehow survive with chronic fear, isolation and loneliness. We must acquire the courage to embrace one another, and die together with a prayer of collective redemption. Let a meaningful death — rather than a meaningless survival in isolation — prepare the ground for the creation of a new society filled with love and togetherness.

Second, it ought to be realised that our inflated egos intensify the fear of death. This is also the reason for the trivialisation of death because we see it as ugly and undesirable. With inflated egos, we feel tempted to equate living with possession; being with fame, money and power; and happiness with temporal pleasures. As American bestsellers would say, ‘life is a picnic party’. However, this picnic party is illusory because the more we have, the more we fear of losing it. And death frightens us because even billionaires, beauty queens and mighty dictators would eventually be reduced to ashes. A tiny blue flower has no ego; it blooms, and then withers away. Possibly, we can salvage ourselves only by overcoming the illusory chain of our egos, and experiencing the lightness of being. Only then is it possible to radiate our fragrance; life can be a celebration only when love and death are fused together. We can then walk with Walt Whitman, and say: ‘All the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers’.

Are we ready to see it? The virus has once again revealed the hollowness of our egos; it is asking us to be humble; it wants us to realise that we are interconnected; we are not separated from this mystic play of life and death, and substance and emptiness. A society that trivialises death, or does not respect the art of dying, is insane.

The authior Avijit Pathak is a Sociologist

(Courtesy: The Tribune, July 01, 2020)

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted