Today, on my 43rd birthday, I would like to tell you about two amazing experiences I had when I recently traveled through India. Both of them were extremely physical. One of them made me aware of cultural differences in our attitude towards death. The other one gave me insights about the poorest of the poor – and how the other half dies.
When I was in Calcutta I visited Mother Teresa’s hospice, Nirmal Hriday. People were literally picked up from the street and brought there. The homeless were washed, dressed and taken care of in this extraordinary place. A multitude of nuns and volunteers helped to clean, feed and medicate them. Wound management was a challenge for both eye and nose. I was a bit shocked by the statistics. Written on a chart are the names, ages, the date they came to Nirmal Hriday – and the day they die. Nobody seemed to care about it.
Yet, I was impressed to observe that spiritually caring for the people there was a priority in this very simple hospice. The nuns and volunteers held their heads and caressed the place where the third eye is supposed to be located. It might be sickening and humiliating to satisfy the basic needs of another human being. However, by taking care of them spiritually, the volunteers showed the dying street persons (they are mainly hindu, but religion doesn’t matter) respect and honored their uniqueness.
I visited the holy city of Varanasi for the second time in my life. When I was there at first, I was annoyed by all the hustle, bustle and dirt. I remember eating a delicious meal only to find out afterwards that the restaurant washed its dishes next to the cremation site. The ashes of the burnt bodies stuck to the plates. I was so disgusted. This time, I fell in love with Varanasi and became kind of obsessed with the cremation pyres at the river Ganga. I realized that I was not the only one who was fascinated by the comings and goings in the ghat. My 8-year-old son enjoyed staying there as well and joked with the cremation workers. (none of those jokes were blasphemous, they were just part of life) I asked him whether he was afraid. He wasn’t: “No, don’t you see, it’s a good thing! They want to die this way and they are going to see god straight away!” he stated impatiently.
I don’t know if dying in Varanasi really means breaking the cycle of life and rebirth. All I know is that I could imagine to say goodbye to my loved ones in such a direct, personal and physical way . I guess I would have to wash their body, massage essential oils and fragrances into it, decorate it with flowers and carry it to a cremation site. If I had to light the pyre, I am sure I would be shattered. I presume I could not do it for everybody. A child of mine – impossible! Older relatives, yes. Later on, watching the body of someone I care about turn into ashes would be devastating. But wouldn’t it be a catharsis for my grieving soul as well?
I talked to many people in Varanasi, to those upbeat guys who work at the cremation site all day and night, to the mourning families and to the sadhus. My point of view was confirmed by them. The ritual was heartbreaking AND healing. Nobody seems to be afraid of death, reincarnation is an inevitable reality for them. This life is just a passage, nothing else, and there is a lot more to come. I wish I could share their strong faith, although I reckon I am too much of a coward to be as equanimous.
Please don’t misunderstand me – being poor, sick and dying in a country like India is not romantic at all. Nevertheless, I found the rituals of life and death in India much more vibrant and powerful than in westernized countries.