I was enjoying local lassi in a small shop down one of Varanasi’s many narrow alleyways the first time it happened — the first time I saw a departed body. It was wrapped in a white sheet and was being carried on a stretcher made of bamboo by four young men. Garlands of yellow marigolds were draped across it. The men weaved effortlessly through the crowds of tourists, locals and animals. Thinking back to that moment, what surprised me more than seeing the body was just how unaffected everyone seemed by its presence, man and beast casually continued about their daily activities. No-one so much as offered up a second glance in the direction.
Why this was such a significant moment for me is because where I’m from, in the UK, we don’t encounter death so frankly — it’s not so ‘out in the open’.
When a person departs this world, the body left behind is quickly removed from sight, not to be seen again by the living. At funerals, all that is seen is a wooden box, whether it’s a burial or a cremation. And more often than not it is placed behind a curtain, again out of sight. Death is rarely spoken of in conversations either. An uncomfortable ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is usually the extent of any discussion upon hearing of a death. Of course in my culture everybody is aware of the certainty of death, it just doesn’t have a place in life.
Perhaps it’s seen to be ‘more civilized’ to keep life and death so separate from each other. Perhaps it’s easier for those left behind to deal with if they don’t have to face it. Perhaps seeing death would serve as an unwelcome reminder of the inevitable, causing too much distress. Whatever the reason, in my culture death is typically kept hidden away from view.
In Varanasi I learnt that death has a place in life.
It is woven into the fabric of the daily lives of the living who appear just as undeterred by its presence than that of the nation’s holy cow. What surprised me most about my encounter with death in Varanasi was how, dare I say it, normal witnessing it felt to me. I even stood at the burning ghats and watched as the ceremonies begun. I couldn’t avert my eyes; not for a moment. Even when the flames died out, after around there hours, and whatever was remaining was scattered in the holy Ganga — my eyes were still transfixed.
I don’t think it’s death that people are afraid of. After all, it is death that gives meaning to life.
So I came to my own conclusion based on my perceptions of how death is handled in the western world. I don’t think it’s death that people are afraid of. Somewhere under the consciousness of our daily living, from the moment we are born, we have the awareness that one day we all have to meet our end. It’s the bit in the middle that makes us most afraid. To arrive at our final hour just to realise that we never actually lived — I think that’s the part that is feared more than death itself and what makes death so uncomfortable to live with. After all, life without death is meaningless, as ultimately death gives life meaning. Seeing death in Varanasi was just a not-so-subtle reminder to myself to not to forget that.