Realizing death in our lives

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 the 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/or afraid, and did not want to hear about their
loved one dying, especially from them. 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 they 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 andloved-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.

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