Living in Egypt, you are never far from the subject of death or the afterlife. On the West Bank is the Theban Necropolis, the the place where royals, nobles, priests/priestesses and tomb workers were interred for eternity. It was the ‘dead centre’ of Thebes (Luxor) presided over by Anubis, also known as ‘He who is upon his mountain’ (tepy-dju-ef) – as protector of tombs and graves – and ‘Lord of the sacred land’ (neb-ta-djeser). Then there are the beautiful mortuary temples of the Pharaohs – the ‘mansions of millions of years’ to remind us, in stone, of life, death and eternity and the beautiful civilisation that created them.
Even in modern times, death is one certainty that cannot be ignored in Egypt. Daily one can hear the prayers for the deceased. Funeral tents appear almost overnight and seated figures with solemn faces make us lower our heads as we pass, out of respect for mothers/fathers, brothers/sisters, wives/husbands, uncles/aunts/cousins and sons/daughters of people we don’t know but these are the loved ones of someone, somewhere. Modern day Egyptian families are still familiar with death; they will no doubt have been present during their loved ones final moments; have seen, washed and prepared their dead, said the necessary prayers and observed the age-old rituals. They will mourn for the prescribed period of 40 days. But for Westerners, such ritual and close proximity to death is no longer the case.
It has only taken 60 or so years for us to detach and sanitise ourselves from the once almost daily inevitability of encountering death in one form or another. It is now something we are encouraged to distance ourselves from, viewing it with more fear than ever – something that can take us from the shiny new world we have created. After all, the American Dream – which has sleazed its way across the pond – never made room for the nasty inconvenience of having to leave it. So death got swept under the carpet; its aftermath neatly packaged and dealt with by professionals. The only allowance we make for it is ‘the show’ of the funeral…or the ‘celebration of life’ as some people like to embellish it now. The warm and fuzzy ‘no-black clothes, no-tears’ invitations; no show of any emotion other than forced smiles and the deceased’s favourite pop song with which to usher them out. The Last Dance. Funerals should be solemn, it is a ritual, a rite of passage – a chance for those left behind to grieve. Leave the Mojitos and fun memories for a bit later.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come – W. H. Auden
Two weeks ago almost to the day, I sat with someone I loved as they passed from this world. I was alone with them and they with me. Technically of course, we weren’t alone – we were surrounded by the noise and busy clamour of an Acute Medical Unit, albeit veiled from curious eyes by the ubiquitous NHS decor of flimsy floral curtains.
I held their hand, I talked of the past, joked about the mischief I had got up to as a child and then eased myself eventually into a reflective silence. Even thought they were unconscious, I couldn’t let go of their hand. I found myself caught up in their fingers. Quite unexpectedly, I felt a huge surge of love at the realisation that they had the most beautiful fingernails – I’d never noticed that before; and now I will never forget.
Then suddenly everything began to change and I fell down the inevitable rabbit hole – I realised I had no idea what to expect, I had never been with someone who was dying. I was supposed to be the interim comfort, waiting until exhausted relatives returned after a few hours respite. I felt unworthy. Was I of any comfort, was I an interloper in their intimate last moments? I hope I was of comfort, that they felt my love for them and did not feel alone. But I also hope they didn’t feel my fear or my helplessness at a time when there is literally nothing you can do except perhaps stroke a hand or head, whisper love for them or offer comfort with promises of loved ones waiting for them on the other side of the veil.
As a writer, I research everything – I wanted to know how others had felt. Some expressed ‘visions of angels’ or witnessing the soul leaving the body. Others, like me, had none of those experiences but felt it was incredibly humbling; a privilege and an invaluable lesson. And yes, one that is scary and deeply saddening. But that is death, up close and personal. It did make me feel closer than ever to my own beliefs and values and I would say it was the most powerful Memento Mori a person can experience – never mind the man-made rituals or meditations. Being that close to death is probably the only way we will experience it – until our own.
So here we are, mere mortals and this will happen to us all. There is no ‘get out of death’ card, even though some, whose inflated egos cannot bear the thought of no longer ‘being’, will spend their lives fruitlessly and desperately seeking something that will alleviate them of their basic fear. We can however make our mark by living a full, respectful and balanced life; something the ancient Egyptians incorporated in their lives as a concept known as Maat. Those who achieved it would become immortal in the afterlife, living it up with the gods; a transcendent being.
Immortality in this world is an illusion…a delusion. But in the next? Well, we’ll see…
Our birth certificates don’t carry expiry dates – your ‘use by’ date may be up sooner than you think.
Live life to the full and as the ancients used to say ‘live well in Maat’!