Anonymity in death, and the right to die

Human societies lay great store by pomp, ceremony and rituals; indeed, people live and die by them.  In death, people become larger than life.  Funerals are occasions demanding great attention to detail, the reading of eulogies and the offering of prayers. They can be rather elaborate and expensive affairs, varying from culture to culture and religion to religion.

(Published in the Daily Times, 11 August 2004)

Many will profess admiration for Wahabism’s emphasis on austerity in life, although few would be prepared to adopt it, definitely not the Saudi ruling class which cultivates, even exports, the creed, while leading a life of profligacy.  But the number of people who would be willing to translate austerity in life to anonymity in death must be very small.

According to a news report: “The body of King Fahd was shrouded in his brown cloak and lowered into an unmarked desert grave as the powerful monarch’s death was marked with the simple rites of his puritanical kingdom. In life, the Saudi king ruled over untold riches and the most sacred shrines in Islam. In death, he was buried anonymously in a dreary stretch of brown dirt and crumbling mud-brick markers among thousands of other Saudis”.

At about the same time, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain is reportedly flying to England to bring back to Pakistan the disinterred remains of Chaudhry Rehmat Ali (no relation of his), buried in Oxford since 1951.  This exercise is to give Rehmat Ali a funeral worthy of a man who had given the country its name, although there is nothing to indicate that he ever wished to be buried in this country.

Human societies lay great store by pomp, ceremony and rituals; indeed, people live and die by them.  In death, people become larger than life.  Funerals are occasions demanding great attention to detail, the reading of eulogies and the offering of prayers. They can be rather elaborate and expensive affairs, varying from culture to culture and religion to religion.

However, like the Wahabis, some Zoroastrians and Tibetans seek anonymity in death.  And they go further, opting for self-abnegation to a degree which a Wahabi will consider absolutely sacrilegious.  Zoroastrians traditionally leave their dead on an open-topped enclosure to be devoured by vultures, while in some parts of Tibet, corpses are cut into pieces and fed to birds – flesh, bone and all.  Zoroastrians regard the body after death as an empty shell, best left as food for vultures.  The gory Tibetan ritual is based on the belief that the act of giving one’s body is the final act of generosity on the part of the dead towards the living.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, ancient Egyptians performed the most elaborate burials, storing their dead pharaohs’ embalmed corpses in great tombs within Pyramids, which were essentially great funerary monuments, along with some of their worldly possessions to provide comfort and service in afterlife.

In modern times, the closest anyone has come to the pharaohs are, strangely, four communists, self-professed followers of the proletarian creed.  They are Vladimir Ilych Lenin of Russia, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Mao Zedong of China and Kim Il Sung of North Korea, who died in 1924, 1969, 1976 and 1994, respectively. Lenin’s embalmed body was preserved in the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow, against his wife’s wishes, by his successor Joseph Stalin.  Stalin himself rested next to Lenin for eight years after his death in 1953, until he was removed from there by his successor, Nikita Khruschev, and buried by the Kremlin Wall.

Ho Chi Minh, who never married and reputedly led a very austere life, had expressed the wish to be cremated and his ashes buried in urns on three Vietnamese hilltops. Instead, he lies embalmed in a granite mausoleum in Hanoi, thanks to his successors, who were happy to violate the will of their revered leader in order to gain political capital for themselves.

Also embalmed and lying in mausoleums are Mao Zedong in Beijing and Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, to be viewed and adored by their curious and confused (and, in the latter case, starving) nations. Both deliberately surrounded themselves with personality cults so strong that it is fair to assume that being put on show, even after death, will have pleased their departed souls.

Wahabism’s aversion to any hint of idolatry or polytheism is such that it countenances neither personality cults, nor mausoleums, nor tombs, nor shrines.  Even as I write this column, according to a news report, “some of Islam’s historic sites in Mecca, possibly including a home of the Prophet Mohammad, are under threat from Saudi real estate developers and Wahabi Muslims who view them as promoting idolatry”.

The Washington-based Saudi Institute says that most Islamic landmarks have been destroyed since Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932. It cited a 1994 edict by the kingdom’s senior council of religious scholars which ruled that preserving historical buildings might lead to polytheism. Sami Angawi, an expert on the region’s Islamic architecture, estimated that over the past 50 years at least 300 historical buildings had been leveled in Mecca and Medina.

Saudi Arabia, however, is the exception, for Muslim lands from Morocco to Indonesia are dotted with tombs and shrines of holy men, which attract supplicants, who go there to have their prayers answered and wishes fulfilled, from success in an examination to the birth of a child.

The West grapples with issues of life and death in more philosophical and moral terms, debating the balance between the quality and the length of life. There is a growing movement for voluntary euthanasia (“good death” in Greek), which is defined as “the practice of killing a person or animal, in a painless or minimally painful way, for merciful reasons, usually to end their suffering”.

Despite the opposition of both church and government on moral grounds, euthanasia is gaining ground. In recent years it has become legal in Holland and Belgium, albeit under very strict conditions. Its supporters defend a person’s “right to die”, while its detractors fear that this right might easily degenerate into a “duty to die” on the part of the old and the disabled, who would begin to regard themselves as a burden on society.

The two best-known public faces of euthanasia are Dr Jack Kevorkian in the USA and Dr Philip Nitschke in Australia.  Although, from what we know, many of the over one hundred terminally ill patients whom Dr Kevorkian assisted with euthanasia expressed their gratitude to him for helping them put an end to their misery, the state of Michigan sent him to jail for his pains. Dr Nitschke has so far evaded the long arm of the law, although he runs euthanasia workshops and has assisted many terminally ill people in taking their own lives.

Inspired by Dr Nitschke, a couple of years ago, Lisette Nigot, a retired professor of French in Perth, who was neither ill nor in pain, took a fatal overdose to end her life just before her 80th birthday. In a note released after her death, she said: “After 80 years of a good life, I have [had] enough of it”.  Nigot wrote: “I want to stop it before it gets bad. . . . The life of an individual, voluntarily terminated, is of small importance compared with the death statistics relative to crime, accident, war and other similar causes of human demise which are viewed by society as a whole with regret, but accepted with relative equanimity”.

Nigot asked, “why is there pressure against helping or allowing people who have had enough of living … to fulfil the longing for final peace?”  And, finally, she wished to be cremated – no speeches, no mention of God.  But, for God’s sake, don’t mention that to a priest, rabbi or mullah, let alone a Wahabi!

by Razi Azmi

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