Memoir Print 2021

My Life After Death

Written by Tisah Shah
Graphic by Suhani Kapadia

This piece was originally published in ‘Memento Mori’, Bossy’s 2021 print edition.

CW: Death.

I’ve always known what will happen to my body after I die. I am aware that in the hours after my passing, it will be laid to rest in my home, and that my loved ones will gather around me and pray for my soul’s peaceful passage into the next life. I know that my body will be cleansed and blessed, and inevitably, I will be cremated, and my ashes scattered back into the earth. For centuries, it has been the practise of many Indian cultures and religions to undertake cremation, and my death will be no different. But an awareness of such an otherworldly experience is truly difficult to conceptualise unless you witness it firsthand. I’ve only seen a dead body once, when I was 14, and it was a mind-numbing, bone-chilling experience. It was infinitesimally difficult to comprehend that the lifeless being before me was once a living and breathing person who I loved, and that they were physically no longer present in the world in the way that I knew them. And while at that age I was unable to process my ideas about death anywhere beyond grief and sadness, I would say my understanding of passing, and the rituals that accompany it, has brought me some clarity. 

There are several ways in which the body can be treated after death. From the ancient mummification practises undertaken by Egyptians, to the Sky burial ritual practised by some Buddhists in Tibet, cultures around the world have unique ways to mourn and pay tribute to those who have passed away. Certain innovative practises have gained popularity in the 21st century, such as the placement of ashes within fireworks for those who would like to go out with a final ‘bang’. It is intriguing, how these rites allow those who have lost a loved one to grieve, and also provide protection and prosperity to those who have passed, as they continue their journey into whatever afterlife they believe in. I am fascinated by the way in which significant cultural, spiritual, or religious elements are woven into each practice — a celebration of the beliefs and values of the dead.

In my culture, the cremation of the body itself serves dichotomously to allow for grief and mourning, but also to affirm the belief that there is hope for life after death, and to celebrate the passage of the soul into its next life. As a Jain, the concept of the soul, or jiva, is central to our funeral rituals. We believe that the body is but a vessel in which the soul resides, and that our jiva exists beyond the physically tangible concepts of life and death. In our culture, we are reborn in a new life upon the instance of our death, and the physical body of our present life is left behind as a hollow carcass, serving as a reminder and a celebration of the jiva it once housed. Burial is hence strongly discouraged in Jainism, out of fear that any residual attachment between the soul and the body will remain if the body is not destroyed, and the soul’s path into the next life will be hindered. 

My faith has thus, to an extent, been able to soothe my fears of the physical aspects of death. I find myself, after deep (deep) introspection, able to isolate my consciousness from my physical body, and able to understand there is much more waiting beyond the bounds of life and death. While the thought of my body being burnt to ash is still undoubtedly terrifying, there is an unsettling peace in the knowledge that both my body and soul will be freed back into the universe after I die. To me, a macabre yet liberating cyclicality lies in the idea that the body is returned to the earth as the dust from which it was created. 

While I am becoming increasingly comfortable with the spiritual aspects of my death, I have also begun considering it in terms of the physical world — in particular, whether I will donate my organs after I die. Seeing loved ones experience health complications and become in desperate need of rarely available organs has also brought the issue to the forefront of my mind, particularly in times like these of dire health crisis. In the modern world, as healthcare needs continue to evolve and change, medical communities are now more than ever pleading for members of the community to donate their organs after they pass. Personally, organ donation has always felt like the most sensible option; as morbid as it sounds, “it’s not like I’ll be needing them anyway.” The choice for me was relatively simple to make, considering its lifesaving implications and my personal lack of cultural conflict with the concept. After all, when I die, it is no longer about how my body may serve me, but how it may be of benefit to others. However, it is pertinent to acknowledge that there are numerous religious and cultural factors which often influence the decision to follow (or not follow) suit.

In my eyes, the body after death, regardless of whether it is cremated, buried or otherwise, tells a story. It may be a story of triumph, of love and happiness, or even of desolation and sadness — but it is still a celebration of a life lived, and of a soul starting its journey onwards.

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