Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Light on Death

“Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.” ~Eskimo Proverb

Death is a completely different concept in Kenya. Recently, I was reading an article by Ajahn Sumedho (onthe website Inquiring Mind) where he explained that when he went to his mother’s funeral he remained after the ceremony to help with the burial. He writes:
“I decided I wanted to help bury my mother, so I stayed. The men in charge, the gravediggers, came over to me and said, “You have to go.” I replied, “I’d like to help bury her.” But they insisted, “No, we can’t lower the coffin into the hole until everybody’s gone. That’s the rule.” This is how Americans are treated—like it’s beyond our ability to endure such traumas. If we were to see the coffin going into the grave, we’d faint or have to spend the next twenty years in therapy.”
It is interesting how in the U.S. death is not something that is encountered, by most people, on an even somewhat potentially regular basis, the only exceptions might be those in medical health professions (eg medical doctors, coroners, nurses, EMTs, etc).
Think about it: when is the last time you (assuming you are in the U.S.) saw a dead body – even at a car accident site. Usually the paramedics and police show up and haul away the bodies before too long, probably within minutes of the accident. The bodies are taken with great care, in case of fatalities, from the site of the accident and people are kept at bay.
Even dead animals are quickly disposed, generally, stateside. Some animals, particularly pets are even treated like family members, and buried in animal cemeteries.

In my community, animals are not generally treated with such equality or respect. In fact, I’ve been yelled at for having dogs inside the house. I’ve seen people throw rocks at my dog Baraka. Daily, I see how donkeys are badly mistreated.

Now, going back to the main theme of this blog post, it is not uncommon to see a dead animal (in some cases a dead human being) on the side of a road. There is no animal control vehicle or ambulance rushing to come and take the body away… In fact, most people just simply pass by as if this particular sight is of no importance. What else would we expect in a society where death is not hidden away? A society where the concept of old is not hidden away by creams, lotions, superficial surgeries to try and preserve the “ideal” youthful look. Instead, we find that in this society people who are old, wazee (elders) as they are known, are respected members of the community.

In this society, death is a very real thing – in many places it is a real threat every day. I, thankfully, am not threatened by not having water or food on a day to day basis. Yet at the same time I have experienced more death here than I did in the U.S. In one single day walking from my school to my home I saw and walked by a dead cow, a dead camel, a dead goat, a dead cat, and a dead stork. All of these animals were just dead on the side of various frequently used roads.

Death is a natural part of life, is it not? Everyone who is born will one day die. In the U.S. there are many phrases used to lighten the grimness of death – passed on, kicking the bucket, moved on (to a better place), etc. The question in my mind these days is why is death feared in the U.S.? I, too, feared death – the prospect of dying. These days I’ve come to realize that all is impermanent – we live, we die. It’s a part of the natural cycle of life. To deny that death exists is to deny that life is meant to be lived to the fullest – for how would we truly live if death was not a real thing?

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