A tribe once roamed the mountains of modern day Iran (some of them still do) — they are called the Bakhtiari — they are shepherding nomads: proud, resourceful, tough as nails. They moved each and every year, as they had done from time out of mind, up and down the mountain trails, moving with the seasons, moving to feed their flocks as the wind and weather, the solstices and sunrises dictated where the grass was greener, where the life was sweeter.
Each annual migration involved hardship, struggle, loss of life for both people and animals. They took with them only what they could carry, the rudiments of life as lived by the millennial nomad. The wool they wove was used to repair clothes worn day to day, their pots and pans numbered only enough. Their shoes, their tents, all of the simplest, most rugged form, were built to survive as long as possible, like the Bakhtiari themselves.
Every year there were rivers to cross: mountain rivers, raging rivers.
The effort to get man and woman, child and animal, chattels and foodstuffs across these rivers was a struggle every bit as “noble” as that of lauded Leonidas, Achilles or Chris Kyle . No one sang songs of the heroic Bakhtiari. No movies were made. None, that is, other than a brief appearance in a documentary series by Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (1973): Episode 2 of 13.
I have never forgotten that episode – a memory from my young years when I sat down to watch the program every week with my mother and father (whose interest was slight but who were happy to indulge the intellectual pretensions of their growing son). In that episode the Bakhtiari come upon a river in full spate. Kids (young goats) are lost in the torrent, men and women struggle to get their livestock, goods and children across the deadly, roiling water.
As they struggle up the further bank, grateful, urging their livestock up onto higher ground, they look back and see an old man, an elder of their tribe, sitting on the shore they have just left behind. He leans on his stick and looks at them with all the wisdom of human mortality in his eyes.
He cannot make the crossing. And no one will help him.
It is the law of life.
And Bronowski describes how this is part of their culture, that every year everyone must struggle to get across and that the old know there comes a day when they will not be able to do so.
Those on the further shore wave their goodbyes, there are no scenes of wailing and gnashing of teeth, there are no appeals to higher powers, there is only resignation, acceptance, sorrow.
The tribe moves forward, the animals and children in tow.
One speculates on the old man’s demise. Does he wait for starvation? Does he wait for wolves? Panthers? Does he cast himself into the river once the women and children are out of sight? Does he cut his wrists?
His thoughts as the tribe, his sons and daughters, his grandchildren and great grandchildren, perhaps his aged wife, move off into the distance and disappear, must be a song for the ages, a lament, a dirge. Perhaps he does sing – the program did not go into it – perhaps there is a song, or many songs available to a Bakhtiari tribesman who has accepted that his frail condition no longer justifies the effort his tribe would have to make to keep him alive another year.
This is an ancient realization experienced countless times before on the banks of other rivers, on other continents, in other centuries stretching back through the millennia: We grow old, we grow frail, we die.
There are stories – probably mostly false – of Inuit peoples who, upon realizing that their elders were no longer viable contributing members of the tribe, set them upon ice floes and pushed the ice out to sea (senilicide). No doubt if this occurred it was during times of starvation or other cultural stress. Other members chose such a fate for themselves and wandered off in the predawn dark or the midnight sun to lose themselves in the endless white wilderness, to embrace their death.
First Nations peoples, on the Great Plains or the foothills of the Rockies often chose to wander away from their communities, to choose a place of power, sing a song of death, and fade from this earth with dignity and with humility. This death song attributed to Tecumseh:
So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
Trouble no one about their religion;
respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.
Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.
Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend,
even a stranger, when in a lonely place.
Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.
Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled
with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep
and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.
Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
In opposition to these ideas, a recent case from our youth-obsessed, techno-decadent culture tells of an aged man in his hospital bed who, every time his heart stopped, received a jolt from the pacemaker embedded in his chest and was brought back, stunned, bewildered and confused from that ‘bourn from which no traveller returns’. His family begged the doctors to remove the ‘technological blessing’ from his body but they could not – their hands were tied by Gordian knots of ethical, economic and litigious bullshit. The family watched him suffer and sink deeper and deeper into exhaustion and confusion as his body fought with the intimate hardware that was torturing his final hours.
And hence, in the early 21c., faced with fraying ecosystems, political chicanery of the most perverted kind, economic piracy and overshoots on every vector of the planet’s integrity, a few brave humans began to realize that death had become a corrupt business – not death itself, but the prolongation of life and the denial and demonizing of death. They realized that the pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession had invaded and colonized yet another aspect of human life and that death itself had become not only commodified but also another economic chain around the lives of the working populace: medical debt.
Looking to the cultures of ancient Rome and modern Japan and Korea, they began a serious discussion on the blogosphere about the willing acceptance of death as a form of political statement: that those who lived lives of privilege in the developed countries owed something to the animal and plant kingdoms, owed something to the struggling millions of climate refugees, refugees of countless wars, the indigent, the slum dwellers.
They began to realize that a corrupt medical and legal profession that promoted the application of rank after rank of medical interventions to “save” hopelessly ill or dying patients, thereby ratcheting up enormous levels of debt to be passed on to family members, was as much a Faustian bargain as the other “elephants in the collective global living room”: the fossil fuel economy, an MIC economy and the travesty of global animal agriculture and destructive fisheries.
They called for a culture that began a serious discussion about DEATH: about euthanasia, about suicide, about dying with dignity, about humility in the face of our own mortality, both collectively and, more importantly, individually.
Some countries were more sympathetic to this dialogue than others. Some had in their public discourse found a way to transcend the old arguments based on philosophical or religious grounds, and some countries had actually offered opportunities for people to choose the manner of their own demise painlessly and compassionately.
Elsewhere the same old paradigms held sway, and people, often desperate, lonely, disenfranchised, desolate, continued to “off themselves” in the time worn ways: overdoses, pills, razor blades, nooses, a dive from a high place. In India farmers whose livelihoods had been held to ransom by merciless corporations who imprisoned them in a pyramid scheme of debt based on GMO seeds, agro-chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides, sometimes resorted to drinking the chemicals that were the emblem of their servitude and despair. But most quietly chose the more traditional methods to take themselves out of this world that had offered them so much in the ads and so little in the day to day.
Few gurus, pundits, politicos, comedians, priests, ministers, teachers or doctors would address the issue.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross had long before defined a five step process that helped to frame the average reaction to a terminal diagnosis by a knowledgable medical expert. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance had become almost universally accepted as an approach and a tool to help those who were fated to inhabit the center of the Venn diagram that exists between the diagnostic process and the medical interventions designed to ‘prolong life’.
Nurses, doctors, palliative care workers of all kinds were very much aware of the difficulties surrounding ‘quality of life’ and the agonies physical, psychological and emotional of those ‘in process’. And aware too of the circle of family members and friends who would become witnesses to the dying process upon which the ‘victims’ were embarked.
The language of dying became a bone of contention for those concerned with this issue. Why, they asked is anyone who contracts a deadly disease and who seeks treatment referred to as a hero? The press was replete with stories of those, young and old, who “battled” against cancer (or any other debilitating disease), who “fought to the very end,” who “bravely defied the odds,” etc., etc., etc.
Why, they asked, was death always framed as some sort of serpent in the garden, some evil enemy that must be fought against tooth and syringe, until the last possible moment.
We are born, they argued, we die. If one is a blessing, surely the other must be too.
The philosophers also weighed in, the experts in religions old and new, the professors, the new age gurus, the channelers.
Eventually, the argument filtered down to those who were concerned about the earth’s ever-worsening environmental state. Those who were spokesperson’s on behalf of the biosphere began to see that a tsunami of death was on the human and non-human event horizon.
They could see that Western industrial hubris and entitlement were invoking a catharsis that would be global in scope and heart-rending in its effects. That people in poorer countries were much less guilty of invoking this wave and that every child born and raised under the Western model – whether a child of privilege in Brazil or China, India or Italy, was a greater cause of planetary mayhem than a host of children born in the Third World. Therefore, if that child in the developed countries was born into a childhood of medical care brought on by defects in genetics or the contracting of some dread disease, then the efforts to keep that child alive ratcheted up by several iterations its effect upon the biosphere as a whole. Resources committed to perpetuating the lives of the very young but sick and the very old and sick could no longer, they claimed, be morally justified when the world was filled with so many poor but healthy children struggling to survive.
The eugenicists had their say.
The ecumenicists had their say.
The philosophers had their say.
In the end a reframing was achieved. A disparate group of disaffected but compassionate individuals, mostly tied together by their association with the comments sections of certain “doomer” websites began to see a way to reframe DEATH.
They posited that our hubris about our own attempts at longevity, supported by a medical profession that constantly dangled the myth of immortality before us, was deeply embedded in our current dilemmas. Health regimens, fad diets, plastic surgery – the entire spectrum of products and services designed to perpetuate myths of beauty, youth and perfection were seen as part of the overall mess we had created for ourselves. The increasing incursions of nanotechnology into beauty products – with unknown future effects upon the biosphere – were also marked for reappraisal.
They also realized that the catchphrase that had come to dog the planet’s economic development — “Infinite Growth” — and had devolved into the tension, the metastasis, of infinite growth on a finite planet, was also deeply implicit in the issue of death. For humanity’s inchoate scrambling for more and more, for infinite growth, was an enormous evasion of a singular truth: infinite growth on a finite planet was a direct parallel to the attempt to achieve infinite growth in a finite body. Biology was the ultimate arbiter, and nature would bat last.
Associated with the reframing was the entire DEATH industry – thanatopraxis – as conceived and practised in the developed world: chemicals (formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, formalin, phenol, methanol), coffins and funerals. Progress had been made with the advent of wicker coffins and even cardboard coffins, but these ideas remained on the fringes of culture and many, many cadavers were still routinely drained, pumped full of a chemical cocktail, lain in expensive wooden boxes (with copper, bronze, steel, gold or platinum fixtures) and placed in the ground to rot and leach out all those bizarre chemicals.
And as the oceans began inexorably to rise in the deltas and around the coastlines of the world, as the number of desperate climate refugees grew from thousands into millions, as the Mediterranean and the English Channel became clogged with boatloads of migrants, the blogosphere lit up with calls for voluntary suicide, for the establishment (formally or informally) of dying centers where people could go, enjoy a favourite last meal, a favourite last film, or musical experience (whether pre-recorded or played in situ on instruments freely available for the purpose).
Where they could spend 24 hours in exactly the manner in which they chose. Where were available swimming pools, spas, well-tended gardens both outside and inside, libraries, and video recording facilities to chat with friends and family overseas and/or to record a last will and testament or some more creative ‘goodbye’ to leave behind.
There should be, they said, within these dying centers studios for the production of art – paintings, sculpture and that it would be quite possible that for many people the intensity of the realization that they were living their final hours would help them produce artwork of profound beauty and accomplishment. These items could be bequeathed to others or saved in collections as a memento mori of those who had passed.
A momentum of support gathered behind this notion and a palliative care counsellor working in the slums of Nairobi came up with an alternative to Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, she called it the Five Stages of Bliss:
Anger becoming Humility
Denial transmuting into Acceptance
Bargaining replaced by Giving
Depression metamorphosing into Celebration
Acceptance acknowledging a foundation of Joy.
She said in a press interview that Anger at the thought of one’s own demise was hubris; humility in the realization that we all must die brought a greater peace.
Denial changing to Acceptance allowed one to move forward, to not be frozen in denial, but to start to design the way one wished to spend one’s last months or days or hours.
Bargaining, she said was fruitless. Far better to engage in a project of Giving, eventually giving away as many of one’s possessions as one could achieve.
Depression she felt was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the ‘process’. But she said she had seen on numerous occasions that a small party given in honour of the dying person had lifted their spirits so much that she felt that a conscious determination to Celebrate every aspect of one’s final days was the most efficacious way to defeat – or at least make tolerable – the deep depression imminent death evokes.
And, finally, transmuting Acceptance – which she felt was too passive – into Joy, a more dynamic emotion, was the best follow through after Celebration. She spoke of spending time with a dying man, who had worked for decades helping the poor of the slums and who had told her that at the bottom of everything, in the deepest levels of meditation there is Joy. He had spoken to her of the dance of the atoms within us and the dance of the birds in the air, the fish in the sea. He had told her that behind all the manifestations of the world whether they be sad or happy, tragic or loving, there was and would always be an incomparable and measureless Joy.
There is a story of an old Indian man, a kind and gentle soul, who upon his deathbed spoke to his son and said that on the morrow he felt he would die, and that his son should not think of it as a sorrow for he was going to a better place. He told his son: “Do not grieve for me, for when death comes I will be a drop returning to the ocean.”
He then asked his son if he felt that he had been a good father to him. The son replied that both his mother and his father had shown every kindness to himself and his sister and that his memory would be cherished after he had gone.
That night the son stayed in the father’s room. The sister and mother came from time to time and then departed again to take care of some domestic chore or other. The father slept soundly through the night while the son looked out the window watching the stars pass gracefully overhead.
Come the dawn the father awoke, took a little soup that his wife fed him lovingly. A short time later, his wife and daughter near him, he asked his son if he felt that he had given him the wisdom he needed to face the world without his father.
The son replied that during the night he had thought about what the father had said regarding the drop returning to the ocean And he said he thought his father was wrong.
The father, surprised by this, asked his son to explain.
“Father, you are not a drop returning to the ocean for, based on all that you have taught me, I can see that when you die you are not a drop in the ocean but rather, at that moment, the ocean will be returning to you.”
The father smiled, squeezed the son’s hand, secure in the knowledge that he had succeeded in cultivating wisdom in his son. And with that, he died.