Words || Saliha Rehanaz
READER DISCRETION: The following article contains sensitive information which some readers may find uncomfortable.
As the entire world steered away from the usual activities of life amidst this pandemic, there has been one aspect that remains inevitable as always: death.
Death is an odd concept for individuals, which is often influenced by their religion, faith or culture. It encompasses a person’s entire life to a single moment which marks the ending of years of memories, experiences and emotions. As the lungs breathe in oxygen for the last time, and the heart faintly pumps blood to the body, what if this finale of life is merely the beginning of a greater journey?
For the average person, a dead body might bring feelings of disgust, uneasiness or sorrow. However, a scientist views a corpse as the cornerstone of a vast and complex ecosystem, which emerges soon after death and flourishes and evolves as decomposition proceeds.
Decomposition begins several minutes after death through a process called autolysis, or self-digestion. After the heart stops beating, cells in the body become deprived of oxygen, and their acidity increases as the toxic by-products of chemical reactions begin to accumulate inside them. Enzymes start to digest cell membranes and then leak out as the cells break, and eventually all other tissues and organs begin to break down this way.
During life, most internal organs are devoid of microbes. With the last breath, the immune system shuts down and enables microbes to spread throughout the body freely. It begins from the gut, where many of the microbes live, and soon the bacteria take over by initially digesting the intestines and the surrounding tissue. It invades the capillaries of the digestive system and lymph nodes, spreading first to the liver and spleen. Afterwards, it ravishes on the heart and brain, which once felt love, happiness, excitement and sorrow.
While a dead body becomes the home to a vast array of microorganisms, it has no place or value in the lives of breathing and living humans. Even if the deceased person was once someone’s parent, partner or child, the usual norm for someone who has passed away is to unite with nature through various forms, such as burial or cremation.
However sometimes, it is not easy to let go of someone you have loved and cherished for all your life. It could even be the case that simply because an individual has died does not mean their life has ended.
In Tana Toraja in Eastern Indonesia, funerals are lavish affairs which involve the whole village. They can last anywhere from days to weeks, and families of the deceased save up for long periods of time to raise funds for the extravagant celebration. A sacrificial water buffalo is viewed as the method for the deceased’s soul to be carried to the afterlife. Until this marvelous funeral can be hosted, which can take place years after physical death, the dead relative is referred to simply as a ‘”person who is sick”, or even “who is asleep”. They are laid down in special rooms in the family home, where they are symbolically fed, cared for and taken out- very much still part of their relative’s life.
It might be surprising to enter someone’s living room and see a dressed up dead body laid in the corner, however, imagine spending hours climbing up a mountain to find numerous vultures lurking around human remnants.
In Mongolia and Tibet, many Vajrayana Buddhists believe in the transmigration of spirits after death. This means that the soul moves, while the body becomes an empty vessel. Therefore, in efforts to return the body to the earth, the body is chopped into pieces and placed on a mountaintop, which exposes it to the elements – including vultures. This is a practice that has been taking place for thousands of years and a large portion of Tibetans continue this tradition even today.
As the souls of Tibetans leave their body to find a new home, numerous people in the United States are trying to minimize their carbon footprint as their soul travels to a different location. The practice of green funerals is becoming increasingly popular, as more and more people are opting for environmentally friendly burials. This means that embalming processes and traditional concrete vaults are being replaced with biodegradable, woven-willow caskets which decompose into the ground.
Moreover, the Green Burial Council has approved 40 environmentally friendly cemeteries in the United States. Alongside biodegradable caskets, a company called Eternal Reefs also provides the option for remains to be compressed into spheres. These spheres are then attached to a reef in the ocean, providing a habitat for sea life, becoming a home for new living organisms.
While Americans move away from stereotypical caskets to seek inner peace, the people of Ghana aspire to find solace as they are buried in coffins that represent their work or something they loved in life. These so-called “fantasy coffins” were recently popularized by major network Buzzfeed, and showed images of elaborate and outrageous coffins. They included images of coffins which were shaped like a Mercedes-Benz for a businessman, an oversized fish for a fisherman and even a large-scale Bible for someone who had loved going to church.
As cultures celebrate death in different manners and bid adieu to their dearest and closest, the process of what happens with the body stems very much from religion and faith. Alongside flora and fauna, people make up an integral part of society. Their impact and relevance to this world not only arises from their actions and deeds, but also from their slightest mannerism, laughter and thoughts.
As the world progresses further, people are moving towards a lifestyle which is decreasingly being dictated by religion every day. This poses a question for the after-death rituals that need to take place in order to appropriately commemorate an individual’s presence and value on this planet.
In Buddhism, most followers believe in rebirth and that the goal is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth and attain nirvana or a state of perfect peace. Therefore, a person’s state of mind as they die is very important so they can find a happy state of rebirth when they pass away. Moreover, Buddhists believe the spirit leaves the body immediately but may linger in an in-between state near the body. In this case, it is important that the body is treated with respect so that the spirit can continue its journey to a happy state.
Similar to rebirth, Catholics believe in an afterlife and that once a person dies, they will see God face to face. Their permission to enter the full glory of heaven is based on their actions and if they have repented at the time of death for any grave offences they may have committed during life. Regardless of the personality of an individual during their time as a living being, funeral rites take place to celebrate their life and prayers are offered to bless the individual.
In Islam, Muslims should be prepared for death at any time. It is believed that the soul continues to exist after death. During life, it is thought that a person can shape their soul for better or worse depending on how they live their life. Muslims believe in a day of judgement by Allah, but till the day comes, the deceased remain in their graves. On the day of judgement, they will either go to heaven or hell, and death is accepted as God’s will by the followers.
There are several other beliefs and religions in this planet with a rising population of more than seven billion people. Apart from religion, there are differences in socio-economic status, race, culture, language and behaviorisms. However, one single element brings us all together and that is the unknown that lies beyond death.
Often, people forget the value of an object, a place or even an individual when they are in possession of it. The death of a loved one or even a stranger provokes emotions and feelings that remind us that everything in this world is temporary. As different religions have different ways of taking care of the remains of those deceased, people have numerous ways of dealing with the grief that follows the death of someone.
While this pandemic has put a stop to celebrations of the moments that make up life, our processes of dealing and handling death have been put to a stop. It is ironic since the phenomenon of death has not paused in time, but simply our ability to celebrate and cherish our loved ones has halted.
As COVID-19 impacts the lives of millions around the world, thousands have lost the battle to this rapidly evolving infectious disease. Unfortunately, such individuals have lost their chance at being rejoiced, because a simple contamination bag holds their soul, their entire existence.
The unfamiliar nature of this novel disease has prevented family members and close ones to say their final goodbyes to numerous individuals. Funeral rites and passages which have evolved to become a form of grieving method, have come to a stop with restrictions placed on the number of people that can attend a funeral or in some cases, the complete inability to even see the body of the deceased for the last time.
Putting aside the aspect of being able to say goodbye, individuals who have passed away from COVID-19 have even lost their basic right to a dignified burial or cremation. There was a time when funerals were special and specific to highlight one individual, but in heavily impacted places such as New York City, mass graves mark all those that have passed. Their tombstones do not read the usual phrases of “’loving parent, loving child or loving partner”. They simply mark nameless individuals that lost in this race of the survival of the fittest.
As these deaths are handled with caution and danger, rather than love and affection, a quote from Markus Zusak’s, The Book Thief, rings truer than ever: ‘Death waits for no man- and if he does, he doesn’t usually wait for very long.’
While the growing numbers cannot be celebrated individually, we will remember them when we all finally reach the home that exists after death.