Life (in and) After Death: A Story in Five Parts
Photo courtesy of The Blue Tree Clinic
Sudden death has been at the centre of my life the past few weeks.
Two deaths that required me to navigate the legal systems of four countries. This entailed multiple visits to mortuaries, dealing with funeral directors and morticians, including checking the deceased person to confirm the correct person was being repatriated, wading through documentation and bureaucracy of different countries and dealing with threats of an irate former policeman turned funeral director on the streets of Malaysia.
Dignity is not a priority in the business of death
Countries in our part of the world often do little to protect the living. Hence dignity in, and after death, is rare.
People are laid out in stretchers haphazardly in mortuaries in various stages of dress and undress, as they were when they died. Policemen, staff and persons entering the mortuary to confirm the identity of those who have died, see them stripped of dignity and privacy. The deceased person who was at the mortuary the previous day remains in the same place the following day, making you wonder if their family has not claimed them.
After the death, everyone refers to the deceased person as a body. “Body”, a word that dehumanises the person and makes the person into a thing, robbed of their history and personality. “Body”, a word I now find difficult to use to refer to a deceased person.
In countries where there is a large number of migrant workers from South Asia in low paying jobs, death is a lucrative business. The repatriation of the deceased person to their home country is expensive – the repatriation of the deceased asylum seeker stranded in Vietnam was said to cost Rs. 3 million. As the families of deceased persons are often absent because they cannot afford to travel to the place of death, the repatriation of the deceased person is done through agents/funeral directors. Competition between funeral directors is hence high. It is not uncommon, for instance, for police officers handling the sudden death of foreigners to “recommend” certain funeral directors who, it turns out, charge more than double the market rate.
The lengthy bureaucratic process and the transfer of the deceased person between different locations means there are chances the deceased person is not preserved properly. This makes the harrowing process of repatriation of the deceased person worse for the family as they may receive a person they barely recognise. The helplessness of family that is unable to control the post death process to ensure dignity in death to their family member exacerbates their trauma.
Check your privilege
Privilege matters. Even when dealing with death.
To navigate the cumbersome bureaucratic processes related to death, particularly the repatriation of the deceased person to another country, one needs knowledge, financial resources and the ability to challenge officials making arbitrary decisions or delaying the repatriation process. To do this, one needs privilege; the privilege of reputation and/or relationships with those who can challenge on one’s behalf and who are able to expedite on one’s behalf.
At every stage of the process, which was stressful, cumbersome and harrowing, I was acutely aware of my privilege and knew that for those that did not have this privilege, such as economically marginalised migrant workers, it would be a million times worse.
Privilege works in unseen, subconscious ways. The process of inquiring into sudden deaths in Sri Lanka took a day and a half and the individuals who are part of the official process (police, mortuary staff, coroner and judicial medical officer) were competent, efficient and empathetic. As this was not exactly in line with the negative experiences shared by others, I could not help but wonder whether the process was relatively smooth because of sheer luck or (unconscious/conscious) biases that worked in my favour.
Working with death and disregarding grief
Death is a constant in human rights work.
Death could even be said to drive aspects of human rights work, for example, work on issues such as enforced disappearances, extra judicial killings, custodial deaths and the abolition of the death penalty.
Human rights work consists largely of seeking justice and support for victims and survivors, which is elusive at best in Sri Lanka. In this context, the striking aspect of the process of inquiring into sudden deaths is the pains taken during the inquiry to determine if a death is suspicious. The fact a random sudden death is inquired into with thoroughness, illustrates that investigations into deaths that are a result of (mostly) illegal state action, such as extra judicial killings and custodial deaths, are intentionally stymied to protect perpetrators.
Persons who work with survivors of human rights violations are themselves at risk of death in certain countries/contexts. In Sri Lanka, over the years, the safety of several colleagues has been under threat. Many, particularly those at the intersectionality of vulnerability such as a Tamil woman from Kilinochchi, speak of families and friends constantly cautioning them and expressing concern about their safety because of the ever present fear they may lose their lives due to their work. Hence, to those working to protect human rights, the specter of death and its aftermath will be ever present in some form.
Although, in the course of their work, human rights workers constantly encounter grief due to death, they are expected to normalise grief, which can lead to becoming desensitised to the emotional aspect of experiencing violations and loss. Victims and survivors may therefore become just a “case” to be resolved and a remedy found.
This is linked to the individualisation of grief in our society, i.e., the grief of those that suffer due to state violence is often viewed only as the individual’s grief. It is not grief that is common to the community except in instances such as war time violations. Even then, it is seen as grief only of the community that suffered. It is critical that those working with victims and survivors are comfortable with the grief of others because to many survivors, speaking of their loss during interactions in their quest for justice may be the only opportunity they have to express their grief to others and be validated, if not comforted.
The grief survivors suffer assumes two forms: grief due to their loss/suffering and the grief and stress of abandonment by the state that has violated them instead of protecting them. Yet we do not grieve as a community for the lives lost due to state violence. To the contrary, some deaths are not even deemed deserving of grief, even of the family, such as the extra judicial killing of a person accused of drug offences, which is seen as a solution to the “drug menace”.
Brutality, especially state brutality is normalised and we do not grieve for our collective humanity that is chipped away bit by bit, every day, with every such death.
Expressing grief in acceptable ways
How we express grief after death is shaped by multiple factors that control aspects of our lives and life opportunities.
In the past, in many societies, funeral laments were common. In ancient Greece and Rome women were hired to lament and sing the funeral song. In South India and among Tamils in Sri Lanka, it is called the oppari, typically sung/expressed by women. When the expression of grief in this manner is viewed through a patriarchal lens, the public expression of emotion, especially in heightened ways, will be considered a weakness. It is a weakness which could be used to label women “emotional” and unsuited to hold positions of power, particularly in politics/governance.
As performance artist Yalini pointed out, patriarchal authoritarian regimes do not wish people to connect to grief, as grief is a powerful mobilisation tool that challenges the violence inflicted upon people. The sadness of a life taken away by violence leads to anger, which leads to protests and demands for accountability.
Widespread citizen mobilisation against the state, such as in Iran, can be sparked by grief that turns to anger and outrage. In countries where people cannot and hence do not know how to express their demands for accountability, since they have repeatedly seen such demands being ignored, they may take to violence to express their hopelessness. For example, in Sri Lanka, when road accidents result in death, people in the surrounding areas may assault the driver and burn the vehicle. In doing so, they are perpetuating the cycle of normalising violence. The state, hence, is a driver (no pun intended) of brutalising the citizen and numbing them to accept state violence, while pushing them to engage in inter personal violence.
Discomfort I found is a good teacher
Generally, there is discomfort with death.
Perhaps because, as Yalini referred to it, when dealing with death one is at the “borderlands between the realms – an unsettling place to be”. Between what we know and what we do not know. Between the certainty of our everyday and the fear and uncertainty of the unknown abyss.
Yet, “Grief gives us compassion…We grieve for people, moments, unlived lives and far away dreams”, said a quote shared by a friend. The discomfort can be a teachable moment if we realise that we grieve for ourselves as much as we grieve for those who left; for their unlived desires and journeys not completed, their wounds unhealed. But maybe more so for ourselves and the loss and even guilt with which we must grapple. We rarely speak of this selfish aspect of our grief.
Death also changes one’s relations to people. As Yalini pointed out, at times of sudden loss “Support, care and help may need to come from new places. This reorienting brings different people closer to you and others further. That’s part of it”. The grief of death is wrapped in the grief of the loss of those who abandon you. It also functions as a re-affirmation of life and community through those who turn up for you in droves.
It is a lonely process as well as a process the increases connectedness with people.
It is the moment, if you are lucky, you find community.