Why Not Death Education?
Education, we say, is about acquiring the knowledge of the world; it is about learning the kind of ‘skills’ that society needs for its economy, technology, market, politics and culture. And we also speak about gender education, art education, sex education. But seldom do we bother about death education. In a way, it is absurd. Because everything in life is uncertain except death. It is not certain whether one would eventually become an engineer or a civil servant or a film maker; but what is absolutely certain is that one will die. And death is everywhere. Yet, in our families we do not wish to mention the word ‘death’ before our children. Nor do we speak about death in schools, colleges and universities. And even when death is talked about, it is just projected as a fact—a distant fact: death of kings, emperors, leaders; death of soldiers in war; death of flood/earthquake/accident victims; death of ‘other ’people. But the truth is that death is not something distant; death is near; we all will die, and it can happen any moment. How do we accept it, understand it, feel easy about it, and prepare ourselves for it? If from nursery classes we train our children for becoming a doctor or an engineer, why should we lag behind in preparing them for evolving a positive/meaningful orientation to death?
A possible reason for the absence of death education is that we fear death, and hence we do not feel easy with it. Death, it is thought, is ugly, death is a taboo, and hence one should not discuss it, talk about it. Furthermore, death somehow disturbs our modernist belief that things can go on and on, and there is no end to our progress—our wealth, our comfort, our physical beauty. Death disrupts our modernist ‘agency’—our belief that with science, medicine and technology we can conquer everything, and become immortal. No wonder, we try our best to keep death outside our immediate context. Modern medicine must try to conquer death, or it must be ‘sanitized’ death— monitored in hospitals. It is a technical discourse for trained doctors; but you and I are not supposed to see it, feel it, understand it. Because of this avoidance we tend to develop a distorted understanding of death. Death is just equated with bodily pain, operation theatre and intensive care unit, and chemotherapy and dialysis. Death, it is thought, has no aesthetics, no deeper meaning. Death is something that has to be feared.
Life is about sunrise and sunset, vibrancy and silence, form and formlessness; and hence without an understanding of death we fail to understand life—completely and meaningfully. When we speak of death education, we do not mean that we are preaching pessimism—a state of perpetual mourning and sadness. Instead, we believe that to understand and acknowledge death is to live more meaningfully, more intensely. If we see death education in its true spirit, something extraordinary happens. First, we develop immense love and compassion. I meet you; who knows the next moment you and I may not be alive because death doesn’t come with prior notice; and hence it is only this moment that exists for us, and we must live beautifully with love, compassion and grace. Second, it makes us see and feel that everything in the phenomenal world is impermanent. Money comes and goes; success comes and disappears; your photographs are published in newspapers, and one day nobody remembers you; flowers bloom and wither away; today I am a ‘beauty queen’, tomorrow I am an old widow with a frail body and a wrinkled face. This acute awakening of impermanence gives us clarity; it becomes easier to free ourselves from the undue attachment and resultant fear, insecurity and greed; we are more ready to accept that death is as real as birth, and both have their meanings—the way sunset is no less meaningful than sunrise. And third, with this lightness we begin to realize that our embodied existence is a manifestation of something eternal; forms disappear; what remains is the eternity of the formless; and once this awakening comes life becomes a divine play; or, to recall the poetic insight of Tagore, it is to find the infinite in the finite., and then, meaningful death is like coming back to the original home—the state of formlessness from which all forms have emerged.
We are not suggesting that schoolchildren—or for that matter, even college/university students—can easily understand the significance of death education. We know that death education requires certain level of maturity; but then, it is important to prepare ourselves for this maturity. For everything, be it music or physics, history or anthropology, we need to orient ourselves. So why not for death education? From Nachiketa to Gautam Buddha, from Zen masters to sufi mystics, from Heidegger to Albert Camus—we see a deep contemplation on death. Is it possible to speak of death in our classrooms?