Death is not the same in 2020, it has chosen to become aloof

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There is no consensus on death, but there is always a final send-off for the deceased

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Tue 21 Jul 2020, 10:07 AM

Last updated: Tue 21 Jul 2020, 12:21 PM

Some days are less ordinary than others. In the morning, a friend shared a distressed message about an aged turtle that had washed ashore in its final moments.
Moments after, we got a call from India that no one wants to answer. My father-in-law had passed after a long, hard battle with cancer. A few weeks earlier, the doctor had given a portentous prescription, one that was missing treatment. Months earlier, he had become detached, no longer watering the plants in his garden.
The family rallied around him, while preparing for the eventuality. Yet the end came in a sudden unsettling moment. That morning he was alert, going about his daily routine even as his body was quietly preparing to shut down. When he felt the onset of breathlessness, the ambulance arrived.
We assume that death is a fierce dramatic remonstrance of life. But invariably, when the breathing stops, pristine quietude takes over. Life declares its final moment in an unpretentious sigh.
A few hours later, another friend lost his mother to Covid-19.
Death is not the same in 2020. It has chosen to become aloof, stipulating new protocol. During the cremation, the modest gathering of mourners did not include my husband. He missed performing his rites as the eldest progeny. The socially distanced grieving is scattered and muted by lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions. Final goodbyes are through Zoom. The social huddle is forbidden. The outpouring of emotions is put on hold. A phone camera plays interlocutor between the living and the dead. It ought to make sense, but it doesn't.
We were not expecting any of those deaths that day. "What is the world's greatest wonder?" the Yaksha quizzed prince Yudhishthir in the Indian epic, Mahabharat.
"Innumerable people die each day, yet we live like we will live forever," replied Yudhishthir.
Steve Jobs referred to his imminent death as the greatest invention of life. Yet, we don't like to think about death. But 2020 has brought an acute sense of our mortality. We circle back each time we read the Covid-19 statistics. Death in the family forces us to think about death.
We seek comfort in incense sticks, candles and religion that touts an afterlife. Science demands proof. It posits that we are essentially a composition of matter and energy, waiting to change state. Biology perceives death as the decomposition of dead cells. There is no consensus on death, but there is always a final send-off for the deceased. When my grandfather had passed away, the entire neighborhood had come to partake of a feast in his honor. It almost felt like a festive celebration of the end of a life.
The rules for funerals have now been rewritten. Covid-19 has snatched away the time-honored death rituals. The bereaved have nowhere to go and no one to meet. So, we reflect a lot more on mortality. The rites of passage are silently taking place in a shared mental space of all those who are bereaved.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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