Death no longer the enemy

 

Quick Links

1995, 1996, 1997

1998, 1999, 2000

2001, 2002, 2003

2004, 2005, 2006

2007, 2008, 2009

2010, 2011

Category: Reflections Date: 18 Mar 99


ďThe problem with dying,Ē said someone the other day, ďis that everyone forgets so quickly.Ē Two weeks ago, I would have agreed. Death has always been a bit of a problem to me, too.

 

The first funeral I went to was that of a school friend in Tobago. She was buried in a white dress with pink ribbons. The casket was open, so the curious had their eyeful. I think those who are truly mourning find it unbearable to look. Ingrid lay there, looking so unreal as her school friends filed past her. Her statue-like stillness haunted me for years. I swore I would never go to another funeral. But some you have to attend for the sake of the living.

 

Then I saw another open casket. She was a young girl. Her make-up haunted me for months. I now know why. The bright cosmetic colours - pink rouge, red lipstick - belong to warm, alive faces. On the dead, it looks as if youíve tried to paint a statue, and makes it all macabre. I was haunted again. And finally decided that I only want to remember people I liked and loved, alive.

 

I want the memory of the way they did ordinary things, like how they lost their temper, the way they spat out watermelon seeds, and how they washed their hair on the way home from the beach. I think the biggest memorial to the dead is to be a true witness to their real lives, their loves, their unhappiness, their irritating ways, their weaknesses and their laughter. In death, we see the sum of peopleís lives, and if their good tipped over their bad then they represent hope for the human race.

 

I decided against funerals because they made me forget. Because they made friends, and people you admire, as unreal as a marble statue of an angel. Because they separated you from the person by making you believe that they were off to this eerie afterlife where everything was a gaudy candy pink, no one laughed, or made jokes and everybody stared at everyone else with beatific saintly smiles. And if the afterlife is such a wonderful thing, why do we resist death? Why do we go into it kicking and screaming, holding on desperately to every last bit of life? No wonder everyone steps out into the sunshine with relief. Jokes are cracked; food is eaten until that uncomfortable feeling of our own mortality and the thought of that cold pink room of angels go away.

 

For many years, I was haunted by the thought of ďmortal remainsĒ. Every crude newspaper photograph depicting decomposing bodies, skulls, disembodied heads would feed my nightmares. So would the pictures of war and the Holocaust. Itís important to see pictures of war so people can be startled into seeing the horror of it. But itís horrible to sell newspapers by showing dead people. It cheapens human life, gives it no more value than a dead dog on the highway. And thatís also why I hate funerals. The way the curious simply peer. I donít care if youíre dead. You still deserve your privacy.

 

I have never, however, walked out of a funeral dizzy with life, infused with the light of a person. I did that last Friday. From the life and death of Erika Hawkins, I have understood that you die as you live.

 

If you live by rote, not questioning anything, not allowing yourself to take risks; if you never push yourself to be the best you can be in your work or personal life; if you seek instead the quick, easy way out of boredom or unhappiness with routine banal pleasures. In short, if you try to do what everyone else is doing and never listen to, or develop, your inner voice, you will be forgotten.

 

Take Erika: when she gave, she gave generously, fully, not necessarily material things (although she did that, too), modestly, quietly, to the deserving, but of herself. As I said at her funeral, she really saw people. She used her third eye, the one we all have, but ignore, the eye of instinct, to see straight into you. By seeing I donít mean the ordinary sight and sounds of our everyday masks, the ones we put on bravely to face the world, our little vanities and insecurities. No, a light in her burned straight into us. And saw not our flaws, but our potential, our beauty. And with this third eye she saw what was most important to us in the world, be it our children, our work, our loves.

 

But she was also scrupulous. She was impatient with anything that was second rate. Iím not talking about material things here. I am talking of the human heart. She was forgiving, but she didnít have time for people who never took the time to find out who they truly are. She was impatient with the mimic men and women who live life on the surface. As a result, Erika always made real contact with people, from gardeners to ambassadors, from teenagers to the elderly. She gave. She gave warmth.

 

She really cared about your aspirations and your dreams, no matter how small or big they were. As Diana Mahabir said, she not only saw our potential, but contact with her made us push ourselves to be better. Erikaís contact with the people she loved and who loved her was so powerful that five, ten, 15 minutes after she died, people turned up to see her. They didnít know she had died. They just came to visit. She gave love in abundance, the real thing, and she got it back in huge showers. She brought people together. We began talking like old friends, all of us instinctively feeling: well, if Erika liked or loved you, you must be okay. It didnít feel, and still hasnít felt, like she has gone. As if by magic, members of the Jewish community appeared.

 

They read the last rights in the wonderful rich language of Hebrew as her daughter, Francesca, said, ďIt was so Erika.Ē I know what she meant: spontaneous, loving, warm. The funeral was the same. A conch shell from the boys in Tobago, wild flowers, a card with a lush garden, a red rose. Hebrew prayers, words of love and friendship, laughter. The joy she gave us was alive in the hearts of the more than 300 people who came to say goodbye.

 

I look at her smiling face in the photograph and thank her. She had enough light in her to light up each person who cared about her. Thank you for that light. It will stay in us all our lives and, hopefully, we in turn can share it with those we love and admire.

 

So to come back to my first point, people die as they live. If they are like Erika, they are alive in us always. Death is no longer the enemy.

 

horizontal rule

 

 

All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur