Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Courage to Face Death

Yesterday I was finishing an edit on a nonfiction book proposal from my three months in Varanasi, India. (I was there doing research for my novel, Sister India.)

In the proposal is a scene from the first time I visited "the burning place," the riverbank pyres where corpses are burned and ashes placed in the Ganges. Watching a human body catch fire is disturbing, even if it's a stranger, and seen briefly and from a little distance.

Hours after that experience, I felt as if the ballast in my interior was rolling around. I felt all atilt. I've read that material a number of times since. But yesterday it got to me again, as if I were seeing it for the first time.

The fact that we die and are physically destroyed is shocking. I find it incomprehensible.

We are all very brave to put up with it.

Add to - Stumble It! - Subscribe to this feed - Digg it


kenju said...

I'm all for cremation, but not the way they do it in India. I prefer the crematory, where you can't see it happening.

Anonymous said...

What a powerful post. I can't imagine how disturbing it is to see a body burn. I have seen dead bodies on display in various religions. My first funeral in the South was shocking as they took pictures of the dead body. (I am a Yankee) Are you writing your book about death?

Peggy Payne said...

I once had an office that was near a crematory, Kenju. Once I came out of the building very late on a summer night and I smelled Varanasi so strong my knees went weak.

Yankees don't have open caskets, Anon? I didn't realize that. I hadn't thought of my book being about death, more about anxiety, really. But then perhaps the two are related.

Anonymous said...

We do have open was the photo op next to the dead body of a funeral in Louisville, Ky which I found shocking. Apparently, it is standard procedure.

For me, death is anxiety in so many forms. Good luck with your book!

Peggy Payne said...

Not a picture I'd want for my album. Thanks for the good wishes, Anon.

Sara Jenkins said...

This touches something that just happened to me. A very old, very dear friend emailed that his wife, with whom I taught art history eons ago, was in the hospital after a heart attack, and the prognosis was grim. Although the two of them always felt like the parents I would have dreamed up for myself, I hadn't called in a long time. Jean has Alzheimer's, and I was afraid of the day when she wouldn't know who I was. It's been easier to settle for email reports from Joe.

After that last email, I expected to hear that Jean had died. I grieved, recalling our long friendship, her place in my life.

Several days passed, and no word came, so, braced for the worst, I called Joe. He said, "I can't hear, I'm handing you over to Jean." To my astonishment, Jean sounded like her old self, saying, "Darling, come out here and stay with me. We used to have such fun. Come stay for 2 years, at least."

That was this morning. This afternoon I got an email from Joe, sounding distraught. He had spilled something, and in trying to help, Jean fell, on her back, and has been taken to the hospital -- another poor prognosis. I grieve again -- and maybe will grieve yet again. This time, at least I'm grateful for whatever prompted me to call this morning. Our short, sweet talk linked us back through all these decades to what we've shared, which is still there as long as one of us is alive. I just wish I could send them some courage -- they sounded as if they need it right now.

Peggy Payne said...

I'm so glad for you that you got that talk today, Sarah. I dare to hope that there will be another one. And thanks for telling us about it.