We watched, all my siblings and most of our children, as the life force in my mother R Valliamai, 95, ebbed and finally departed. It was just after noon on Nov 28, 2022.
As I saw my mother’s vital signs decline little by little – and having seen her faculties lose some of their vitality, such as becoming hard of hearing, in recent years – I realised that death was a process, not a sudden event.
The human spirit and the vital stuff of life, what made her my mother, a person, a human being, was gone. The small-sized, fair-skinned loving bundle of flesh and blood that showered love on all of us and walked with a spring despite her age was no more.
Only an inanimate body remained. Although her face showed a peaceful countenance, the eyes were now dull and unseeing and the limbs frozen in time.
But it was a gracious death. She didn’t suffer. She was not intubated. We fed her sanctified water while repeating the mantra “Om” and saying silent prayers for her before she passed on. Earlier, she had told a few of us: “I’m going to sleep.”
It is what some may describe as a “good death”. Valliamai took extra care not to burden any of her children, so much so that she began saving for her funeral and instructed us to use that money to cremate her body.
She always ended her phone conversations, and in saying goodbye to visitors, with the words: “Good luck. God bless you.”
Several times a day, she would pray for the welfare of her family and peace in the world.
We cremated her body, as she had wished. It was a traditional cremation, with her coffin placed on cut logs. As her eldest son, I lit the funeral pyre.
Soon, the body of what used to be a living, throbbing Valliamai was engulfed in flames. The 206 bones, 96,500km of blood vessels,100 billion neurons in the brain and all the organs and tissues in what was all this while my mother danced in flaming glory and became one with the natural elements.
When someone dies, we can’t help but reflect on death and what it means to die. The funeral rites remind us again and again about death and acceptance.
We know that man is more than the sum of his biological parts but we also know that without a body with which he or she breathes, sees, hears, smells, talks, tastes and in general experiences life, there can be no “person”.
Death is generally seen as “the total cessation of life processes that eventually occurs in all living organisms”.
We die because our cells die, and billions of cells die each day to make way for new cells.
There is something called the telomere, a repeated DNA sequence, at the end of each chromosome within the cell. Each time cell division takes place, the telomere becomes shorter, as a part of it gets clipped away.
And when the telomere gets too short, cell division stops and the cell dies. It is estimated that each cell makes between 50 and 70 divisions before it dies.
But we are totally oblivious to this.
At every moment of our lives some cells die and new ones are generated. Perhaps this is why some say the process of death starts the moment we are born.
At the time of death, the first to go is usually the heart – which stops beating. This sets in motion a series of related events. As blood circulation ceases, oxygen supply is cut off to the cells. This causes the oxygen-starved cells to stop all metabolic function, one result of which is that the body begins to cool and reach the level of the ambient temperature around it.
Doctors generally determine death by looking at lung and heart function, which includes feeling the pulse, checking the breathing, and looking at the pupils of the eyes.
But there is still some debate in the medical establishment – now armed with more refined methods of measurement and equipment to keep the lungs and hearts functioning artificially – as to the exact definition of death.
Today, the cessation of the entire brain function of a person, including the brainstem, is considered as a better definition of human death.
Adding to this debate is the discovery that some genes continue to be alive for at least a day or two after death in vertebrates such as mice and zebrafish.
Peter Noble and Alex Pozhitkov at the University of Washington found that there was “sufficient energy and cellular function for some genes to be switched on and stay active long after the animal died,” as reported by New Scientist in June 2016.
The report added: “A similar process might occur in humans. Previous studies have shown that various genes, including those involved in contracting heart muscle and wound healing, were active more than 12 hours after death in humans who had died from multiple trauma, heart attack or suffocation.”
According to the New Scientist report: “The research also raises important questions about our definition of death – normally accepted as the cessation of a heartbeat, brain activity and breathing. If genes can be active up to 48 hours after death, is the person technically still alive at that point?”
Debate or not, from what I’ve observed, Malaysian doctors and families of patients are quite comfortable with the traditional definition of death by checking heart and lung function.
What happens when we die? The same report says that if kept in the open, the human body can disappear in months. Within minutes of death, it says, “carbon dioxide starts to accumulate in our blood, causing cells to burst open and spew out enzymes that digest tissues. Within half an hour, blood starts to pool at the lowest point, while the rest of the body turns pale. Rigor mortis then sets in as calcium ions diffuse into cells causing muscles to contract”.
Putrefaction occurs three days later as microbes that live in our gut break down proteins. And the body not only begins to smell but also gets bloated due to the gases produced.
“Our flesh is rapidly consumed by bacteria and maggots. Eventually, after months or years, only bones are left – minus their collagen – which succumbs to bacteria and fungi,” added the report.
That explains why most people bury or cremate the body of a dead person as soon as possible. Today, of course, embalming techniques help preserve the body a little longer.
When we die, do we really die? Today, with the world wide web, we can live on in perpetuity – or at least our images, and information about us, can exist as long as no one deletes them.
Is my mother, for instance, really dead? Yes and no. Yes, she’s no longer physically present. No, because her memory lives on in her children and others who knew her; and in the pictures of her posted on the Facebook accounts of some family members.
She will only die when the last of us dies and there is no more memory of her.
Then again, she can never die because she believed in the atman (roughly translated as soul) within her and that the atman is immortal.
The Tamil words often used in reference to someone who is dead are “maraintha” (literally the one who disappeared or is hidden) and “kalam sendra” (the one who went with time) or amarar (the immortal one).
The dead are hidden indeed, for when a body is buried or cremated, the remains decompose and mingle with the earth or are carried by the wind here and there. They are present, but in different, finer form.
Eventually, they become a part of something or other, and as such live on. In a sense, therefore, they are immortal.
But when we say immortal, we don’t refer to the material; we refer to the spirit or soul. Most cultures believe in the existence of a soul and that it is immortal.
Some believe the soul, after a human dies, resides in some paradise; others, like the Hindus, that it reincarnates again and again to rid itself of its karma (action and its results) and finally attains spiritual liberation or mukti.
So, while death is natural, it is but another process in their various lives or the life of their essence. In the final analysis – to believers – there is no such thing as permanent death.
While the scientist may frown at this or shake his head, the poet will not, as this poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye shows:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am in a thousand winds that blow,
I am the softly falling snow.
I am the gentle showers of rain,
I am the fields of ripening grain.
I am in the morning hush,
I am in the graceful rush
Of beautiful birds in circling flight,
I am the starshine of the night.
I am in the flowers that bloom,
I am in a quiet room.
I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave bereft
I am not there. I have not left.”
I would like to think the poet is talking about my mother Valliamai.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
The writer can be contacted at: [email protected]
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