Sunday Herald : A good goodbye

Sunday Herald : A good goodbye


There is no armour against Fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.

— ‘Death the Leveller’ by James Shirley

 Death is the only certainty in life. It does not distinguish between the rich and the poor, the prince and the pauper. But, have we come to terms with the inevitable? “Starting today, make friends with death,” says Yumi Sakugawa in her illustrated guide, There Is No Right Way to Meditate And Other Lessons. “Talk to death on a regular basis. Ask death, ‘What is its favourite drink?’ and other questions. Ask if it has any advice for you today. Befriend death.”

Realising the impermanence of life and the unavoidability of death, many are now beginning to set their houses in order before departing the world, instead of leaving their mess for others to clear after they are gone. Though not entirely a new concept, ‘death cleaning’ is creating waves, especially after the release of the book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson.

The Swedes practice a process of uncluttering called döstädning, meaning ‘death’ and städning meaning ‘cleaning’, where one clears all unnecessary belongings before embarking on the ethereal journey. “Stop thinking about whether the object is meaningful to you. Eventually, you will not be here anymore, and your loved ones will be left to deal with your junk. Will the object be meaningful to them?” the author asks.

Life lessons

London-based Radhika Sanghani, now 27, had written her will many years ago detailing who gets her most prized possessions, online passwords and precise instructions on how her funeral should be held. Though it started as a semi-joke, she almost died in a road accident in Thailand in which many other passengers were killed. The incident helped her accept that death cannot be predicted, and strengthened her resolve to clean her life and be ready for the ultimate eventuality whenever it occurs.

Cleaning means different things to different people. Says travel writer, photographer and artist Sudha Pillai, “I have left clear instructions for my body to be donated for organ harvesting; what is left should be used for medical research.”

Anil Srivatsa, an organ donor, whose mission is to promote organ donation across the world, adds, “Being humane should be the way of life, rather than a last ditch effort when death is round the corner. Organ donation saves many lives and costs nothing. India should become a nation of ‘givers’ instead of ‘takers’.”

Seetha Bhat from Mysuru has her will cut out, “Donations to animal rescue centres, alma-mater and house maids; instructions to take care of my 13-year-old dog; body to be donated for medical research; and absolutely no rituals or religious ceremonies at my funeral.”

For Sasi Nambudiri, an astrologer based in Chotanikara, Kerala, cleaning up his act meant unburdening his heart of all resentment against friends and family members who had wronged him. “I never had the courage to confront them, and my bitterness weighed heavy on me. One day, I decided to take out all the anger from my system by put my thoughts on paper. Now, I am feeling very light and can travel the rest of the journey in peace.”

“Decluttering and living a minimalistic life is just one part of the cleaning process,” says Smitha Rakesh, daughter-in-law of Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah. “In reality, it is also important to secure the future of your loved ones.” Smitha, who lost her husband about a year ago, explains, “Rakesh was not even 40 when he left us. Death is unpredictable and can come to anybody, anytime. Since we were young, we took life lightly and had not even invested in a house of our own, but destiny had other plans. This has taught me not to take life for granted, and my prime objective today is to insulate my two children from any risk. Thankfully, I have the complete support of my parents-in-law.”

While ‘letting go’ continues to be a major part of the cleaning process, Robin Sharma, in his book Who Will Cry When You Die, lists out 101 ways to improve our lives. They include simple tips like: learn to be silent, get up early, write ‘thank you’ notes, connect with nature, practice forgiveness, walk in the woods, drink fresh fruit juices, stop condemning, do not worry about things you cannot change, plant a tree... “Most people do not discover what life is all about until just before they die.”

“When you learn how to die, you learn how to live,” explains Professor Morrie Schwartz, the main protagonist of Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Once, Morrie, who was terminally ill, had gone to attend the funeral of his colleague who had died suddenly of a heart attack. On returning home, he exclaimed, “What a waste. All those people saying all those wonderful things, and my friend never got to hear any of it.”

Morrie did not want this to happen to him. He made some calls, chose a day, and was joined in his house by some friends and family for a ‘living funeral’. Each of them spoke and paid tribute to the old professor. Some cried, some laughed. Morrie cried and laughed with them. And all the heartfelt things that we never get to say to those we love were said that day. Morrie’s living funeral was a rousing success, and when he actually died a few months later, he had no regrets.

Singer and composer Ramya Vaasisht notes with a tinge of sadness, “There is a saying, ‘When I die, do not come to my grave and tell me how much you love me and how much you miss me, because those are the words I want to hear while I am still alive.’ My biggest regret is that I did not tell my father and my maternal grandmother how much they meant to me. My father was never judgmental and always made me feel special, but I did not appreciate it when he was alive. My grandmother was an epitome of love and treated all her 20-odd grandchildren equally. I only wish I could hug them and express my gratitude, which I never did when they were alive.”

Though most philosophies believe in rebirth, we are afraid to embrace death when it comes calling. In her thought-provoking book The Laws of the Spirit World, Korshed Bhavnagri says the spirit world, and not earth, is our real home. The earth is just a school where we are sent for experience, training and learning, to make us fit for a higher realm of the spirit world. We undergo hundreds of such reincarnations until we reach the level of perfection. 

Rebirth? Who knows?

There are seven realms or planes of existence in the spirit world, with one being the lowest and seven being the highest. After our death, we are assigned to one of the realms, depending on our good or bad deeds.

Life in the spirit world is so beautiful that once you experience it, you would never want to return to earth. “Do not go on the wrong path for just a few years of temporary happiness on earth, for this will make you go through hundreds of years of suffering in the lower realms of the spirit world,” the book adds.

But not all believe in the rebirth theory. Eminent journalist Khushwant Singh asserts in Khushwantnama, which he penned at the age of 98, “The Bhagavad Gita assures us: ‘For certain is death for the born, and certain is birth for the dead’. There is no proof of afterlife. Death is the final full stop. It is a void nobody has been able to penetrate. It has no tomorrows. I realised early on that I have only one life to live, and not knowing when it will come to an end, decided to get as much out of it as I could.”

Whatever our beliefs about rebirth, it is important that we make the best of our current existence. “The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live,” says Norman Cousins, author of Anatomy of Illness. Cousins, who had introduced laughter therapy into his life as a part of the cleaning process, survived years longer than his doctors had predicted: 10 years after his first heart attack, 26 years after his collagen illness, and 36 years after he was first diagnosed with heart disease.

Life is really simple, but we tend to make it complicated. When we wind up our sojourn on planet earth, we are most likely to regret what we have not done, rather than what we have done. When death knocks on our doors, can we stare it in the face and say, “Yes, I have lived life to the fullest?”

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