The tragic rows of wooden coffins in Italy, waiting for a lonely burial, are images difficult to erase. Live data of deaths reduces lives to statistics. We are not unused to statistics from wars, plagues and pandemics. However, information unfolding before our eyes is a new phenomenon in a digitally connected society.
One cannot claim ordinary people have never had to face the real possibility of dying, faced daily in Syria, Iraq, Kashmir and Palestine. What has stunned many is that this pandemic, like T S Eliot’s yellow fog of ‘insidious intent’, has wrapped itself silently across all nations of the world, rich and poor, peaceful or war-torn.
The fear we experience is not of illness, but of possible death. Death was once seen as a spiritual or theological inevitability. Plato believed the true attainment of pure knowledge, the wisdom we desire, is only possible once we quit our bodies. Belief in life after death, denied the finality of death. Ancient Egyptians made elaborate preparations for the afterlife of the deceased. Simpler burials across the ancient world placed objects in graves for use in the next life.
The Venerable Bede wrote in the seventh century, “The present life of men on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall.” The Quran says once we have died, this life will seem as if we had only stayed for an evening or at most till the next morning.
As Europe secularised, death and illness was explained scientifically. Death became an abstract concept, romanticised in art and literature. Images of the terrifying hell of Hieronymous Bosch were replaced by Elysium and Eden. Graves were adorned with beautiful sculptures of winged angels. The 20th century developed medical interventions and vaccines to stave off death, which was seen as an unwelcome intrusion to the pleasures life had to offer. John Donne rebukes death: ‘Death be not proud, One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.’ Dylan Thomas writes, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.’ With elixers and cryogenics, modern society wanted to conquer death.
In 20th century Western societies, death was hidden from public view, taking place in hospitals and hospices, attended not by family or priests, but by medical practitioners. Death is euphemistically called ‘passing away’. Bodies are prepared by professional undertakers. The only place where death is watched with eager horror is in the removed-from-life fictional world of cinema, television and video games. And now we come full circle to the public acknowledgement of death as the Covid pandemic sweeps unrelentingly through homes all over the world.
So how should one deal with death? All religions have elaborate funeral ceremonies. Some Filipino tribes keep their dead in their homes for years, dressing them up for social events. The spirits of ancestors are invoked through magical ceremonies or séances. The New Orleans jazz funerals and Irish wakes, celebrate the passing of the dead. Ghanians make colourful coffins. Tibetans have open air sky burials. Mausoleums, named after the Anatolian King Mausolus, keep memories alive — the Taj Mahal being the most famous one. Shrines of Sufi saints are venerated everywhere. All Souls Day, Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) and Shab-i-Barat are reminders of death. Music is composed to encapsulate personal loss — Mozart’s Requiem, Schubert’s Ave Maria, Mahalia Jackson’s songs at Martin Luther Jr’s funeral and Elton John’s Candle in the Wind.
Sufis welcome death to achieve reunion with the beloved: “Fearless in the face of finitude.” Sufis ask us to ‘die before we die’ to erase our love for the world. Ghazzali said, “The first sign of love of God is not to be afraid of death and to be always waiting for it.”
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 12th, 2020