Dying with Dignity, Not in Isolation


Dr Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

Recently I read a rather uncanny report of some people in the USA getting an invitation for Death over Dinner.  Why bizarre! Normally, talking of death is considered taboo, and even when we have to talk about a person passing away, we just say in a few words about him/her and do not elaborate about the event. Here the persons had gathered almost as if they were in a party.

People who came for the invite were expected to talk about a friend or their relative who had passed away. Some spoke frankly, some in a reticent manner and some had an emotional breakdown.

There are instances of some exceptional people being indifferent to death. It is reported that the world renowned scientist Albert Einstein produced some significant research a day before he passed away on 18 April 1955. A French mathematician was to have a deadly duel with a compatriot the next day and knew that he could be shot down. This is exactly what happened about two centuries back, but on the last night, he produced some outstanding theorems.

People are usually candid about the death of someone dear to them but sometimes become emotional reminiscing about it and then some start talking about how they would like to die. They say they would like to die with dignity with their loved ones — parents or brothers or sisters or their husbands/ wives being nearby.

However, the way our society has shaped in the last few decades, this is an ideal wish. People are living far away — many parents have their sons and daughters working and living in distant countries — USA, Canada, Australia, etc., while the parents are in India. When they get news that their father or mother is critical, it is no surprise that people occasionally reach after the death of their parent. This happened with me also several decades earlier when my father was about to die.

About a year back, the parents of a friend of mine who was an officer in the Indian Army were both seriously ill. They had been shifted to a well known Army Hospital in Delhi. After a few days the wife was asked to recover at home while the husband stayed in the hospital. My friend and his brother were both away from Delhi. Although she had been discharged from the hospital to be in her home, the mother had a stroke and soon died. The only person who was with her at the time was a maid who first did not understand what had happened.

When she realised that her mistress had passed away, she telephoned her sons who came after a few hours to see their dead mother. She was cremated after two days by her husband who requested that he be allowed to light the cremation fire. It was sad seeing the sick man doing the last rites of his wife. Three days later the sick man himself breathed his last but fortunately at that time his sons and other family members were present.

Like politicians in other countries — presidents or prime ministers, in India also, such dignitaries are given all care and respect when they are dying. In May 1964, the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, died in his palatial government home. As usual, the body was placed in a place where his admirers or anyone else who wished to pay their respects to the departed soul, could come for  darshan  (viewing) of the body . I remember that I also had admired Mr. Nehru and so I went to see his body lying in state in his home. It was an emotional scene for me that I can recall even after five decades.

We all know death is inevitable but one expects that the last moments are peaceful and dignified. But in some poor parts of India, sometimes one hears of reports of a dead person lying on the road because a nearby hospital did not admit him/her. Or a woman who had given birth to a dead baby, weeping with sorrow as the dead baby lies on the roadside.

However, some kings or dictators die in a cruel manner. A tragic death of a Moghul King, Shah Jahan, who had the heritage Taj Mahal built, occurred in 1666 as he was imprisoned in Agra Fort by his second son Jahangir who was ambitious and wanted to become King as soon as possible.

All living beings — humans, animals, birds, plants die. While death is inevitable, one hopes that death will be a peaceful event from this world to the next if one believes in the next life. In the Hindu faith, we believe that the body dies but the soul does not. The souls after some time on a suitable occasion will be transferred to another body. Occasionally, it could be that of an animal. Being born as an animal is not a degrading event. Many people love animals — dogs, kittens or other species; and in Hinduism, a cow is venerated for different reasons that one need not discuss here.

While a person is dying, he would not normally be thinking of his next life. All he would want is to die peacefully, in dignity and in the presence of loved ones.

Let us respect his last wishes, although it becomes difficult in this complex world.


Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, an educationist, Gandhian scholar and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University. His new book, A Garland of Ideas—Gandhian, Religious, Educational, Environmental was published recently in Delhi. ravipbhatia@gmail.com


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Oct 2019.

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One Response to “Dying with Dignity, Not in Isolation”

  1. I much appreciate the theme and the manner of its discussion. I have an interest in the tradition of poem composition by Zen monks at the time of their death, and with any sense of discovering “one’s song” to frame that time.

    In that sense, missing for me in any discussion of death is the lack of emphasis on its subjective meaning — rather than how it is perceived by others. Given that there is a famous study of Metaphors to Live By (1980), it is for that reason that it seems appropriate to recognize the need for:

    Metaphors To Die By: Correspondences between a collapsing civilization, culture or group, and a dying person

    Books of the Dead are suggestive in that respect. Songs and poems may be better for some