My grandfather would have been 105 years old last month. It’s less than three years since his death, and two years since we scattered his ashes among ferns and trees in the beautiful gorge where he loved to walk.
As anyone who’s lost a close friend or loved family member knows, death is not the end of the relationship. The biological end-point is not the relational end-point. And so Grandpa is still with us. His presence – his wit, wisdom and tranquility – still arcs into our lives. He’s still active in our fields of consciousness, and for those of us who knew him a long time, will no doubt remain so.
How we deal with dying
The reality of death is medicalised, sanitized and hidden in much of the Western world. Watching endless killings on television – fictional and true – does not seem to help when death enters our personal lives, as it inevitably must. Then, all too often the dying are taken from us to be sequestered in institutions, and we are distanced from the truth of what happens. We leave dealing with dying to the professionals – the doctors, nurses and undertakers.
Most of us are unfamiliar with the processes of death and horrified by thoughts of decay and decomposition. We speak in euphemisms about dying and don’t know what to say to the bereaved. This discomfort speaks of our fear, our grief, and our uneasiness with the knowledge that all things pass, including ourselves.
Death is as common as birth. It happens every day. It happens to every one of us. Yet I was 43 years old before I first encountered a dead human body. And I was unprepared.
The shock of the unfamiliar
My ignorance of the processes of death was highlighted by Grandpa’s dying. He died over the span of several days, in his own bedroom, with family around him. We kept him company and talked with him and to him, held his hands, wept over him, and my father was with him at his last breath.
My grandfather’s dying was the best kind of death – beautiful because dignified and full of love.
Yet I was shocked when a few days later I contemplated his prepared body in the coffin. I expected to feel a strong sense of his presence. Instead, I felt absolutely no connection – he simply wasn’t there. It didn’t even look like him. I caressed his forehead and was stunned by the icy coldness. My logical mind knew why, of course, but I felt traumatised.
The absence of ritual
How different was this brief encounter to the times I’ve held my dying guinea pigs. Once Grandpa died, I was not able to hold and caress him until he cooled naturally. I did not help bathe or dress him for the final ceremony. These intimacies were performed by others.
And without the transition offered by these once-common rituals, I couldn’t connect the cold body with the living person I’d seen days before. I was confronted with a stranger whom I did not recognise. It was profoundly upsetting.
When our loved ones are physically removed from us to be taken care of until the funeral, we can no longer perform important rituals which help us to adjust to the reality of the physical death. This is a great loss. We have lost the comfort and solace that come with tenderly dressing our dead, and with the first blossoming of grief taking place in the presence of the loved one.
‘Life that doesn’t end with death’
Contrast the way this Indonesian community accompanies their dead. I watched this fascinating TED talk by Kelli Swazey and was most struck by two things. First, by Swazey’s husband’s childhood memories of playing happily around his deceased grandfather. Second, by how the community include their dead in everyday life. It’s an eye-opening glimpse into another way of dealing with dying. Instead of death and the dead being marginalised and shut away, they are central to the community and deeply celebrated.
HEALTH ARTICLES BY ROBERT GOSSTRAY