Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why worry about dying?

Why worry about dying?

A Tibetan Buddhist teacher once said: 'Don't worry about dying - that will happen successfully whether you worry about it or not.'

Mar 17, 2009
The Sunday Times

By Wong Kim Hoh

The mee siam had settled comfortably in our tummies.

The wine glasses had been refilled, the coffee poured and the apple tart sliced and served.

We were feeling mellow and the conversation turned to death.

One of my dinner guests had started it by describing how the Japanese movie Departures had turned him into a snivelling, sobbing mess.

The others piped in, and then started comparing notes on scenes in the film which made them weep, wail or blubber the most.

For those who have yet to see it, director Yojiro Takita's five-hanky affair, which nabbed this year's Best Foreign Film Oscar, is an exquisitely crafted and evocative look at a unique Japanese ritual - the meticulous and stylised casketing of bodies for cremation.

Suddenly, EC turned to me and asked: 'So Kim Hoh, have you thought about where you want to be cremated? In Singapore or in Kuala Lumpur?'

I was stumped for an answer. I can't, in all honesty, say I've actually pondered the matter.

Not that I haven't thought about mortality. Or my idea of the perfect exit - smiling, in my sleep, after a good meal with loved ones, and my body and faculties intact.

But until my friend brought it up, the issue of my final resting place has somehow never surfaced.

So would it be Singapore where I have lived for the better part of my life or Kuala Lumpur, where I was born, and where my mother, siblings and relatives still live?

Before I could answer, one of my guests started tapping my teak dining table repeatedly.

'Touch wood, touch wood. Choi, choi, choi,' she said, using the Cantonese expression to exorcise bad vibes.

'Can we please talk about something less morbid?,' she pleaded.

You can't, a wit once said, get out of life alive. Indeed, if there is one certainty in life, it is that we will all die.

But for all its immutability and inevitability, death is a big taboo for many. A taboo even bigger than sex. Definitely not to be talked about in public, and certainly not fodder for after-dinner conversation.

A lot of it probably has to do with fear. And there is a lot of fear about death because there is a lot which is unknown about dying.

Is death really the end? Do we have souls, and if we do, what happens to our souls when we die?

Will we get reincarnated? Do some of us become ghosts? Does it make a difference whether we get buried or cremated?

Humans try to quell these fears in all sorts of ways, through religion, science and more. Not all succeed.

As a little boy, I used to dread passing a certain stretch of shops along Petaling Street in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

In fact, I would walk on the opposite side of the road because the sight of traditional Chinese coffins - rectangular wooden structures with three distinctive humps - outside these shops would make me break out in a cold sweat.

I would train my eyes on the ground to avoid having these massive structures in my line of vision.

The same phobia extended to wakes. The block of low-cost flats where I grew up was situated near a communal parlour where residents in the estate held wakes for their dearly departed.

A sense of unease always plagued me whenever the place was used for a funeral. Inevitably my sleep would be fitful, interrupted by the cacophony of drums, cymbals, trumpets, chanting and, God forbid, hair-raising caterwauling by grief-stricken widows.

My very vivid imagination would often go into overdrive and I would be haunted by images of pregnant cats vaulting over coffins.

Such an occurrence, several of my primary classmates told me on very good authority, would turn the corpses into Jacks In The Box.

Not surprisingly, I secretly dreaded the day when the Grim Reaper would finally visit my circle of loved ones and take one of them away.

That day finally came when I was 14, when my grandfather died after suffering a stroke and falling into a coma.

While there was a lot of grief, the dread I had expected to experience during the wake and the funeral surprisingly did not materialise.

I guess much of it had to do with experiencing death on a personal level instead of seeing it or hearing about it from afar.

Visiting Grandpa in hospital daily in the weeks leading to his death probably prepared me psychologically and emotionally. Hearing a monk explain why certain rituals and rites were performed took away the irrational phobia.

It also helped greatly that I was not coping with the experience alone, but with loved ones and relatives.

More people I've loved and known have passed on in the years since.

In its own little way, each death has changed how I look at life a little. And more than anything else, each death has also made me more aware of my own mortality.

I no longer fear death the way I did when I was eight years old. But that doesn't mean I am not afraid of dying.

Hell, I am afraid, especially of the process of dying. I don't want to be hooked up for years to tubes before making my exit.

I don't want be a burden to the living. I just want to depart as painlessly and with as much dignity as possible.

But as much as I dread and worry about how I am going to die, I also know that it is pointless doing so.

The truth is, we have no control over how we go.

A Tibetan Buddhist teacher once said: 'Don't worry about dying - that will happen successfully whether you worry about it or not.'

Instead, we should, he said, worry about living, and doing it well and meaningfully.

That's what I try to tell myself now whenever I get worked up thinking about how I might die.

So back to the question: Singapore or KL?

It doesn't matter, as long I live a great life and have a good death.

This story was first published in thesundaytimes.

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