A man dies. It was a mechanical death for, in our time, death is named, reasons attested and written off. We have learned to keep death at bay, with the boundary between the living and the dead as clearly marked as the borders between nations. We do not understand the language of medicine; the hospital room becomes the promised land, and our home is an exile from that.
A man lies with his mouth slightly open and his eyes rolled upward, with only their whites showing. Death, the nameable, cannot be exacted: it is not the sickness—cancer—that he died of. Instead, heart failure. No matter. He is dead. This is a cadaver.
There is no time to mourn. Not yet. We must prepare the body. It is not the job of the mourners, no; it is the job of the hospital's workers. They will pull out the tubes that kept the body alive. They will clean it from head to toe with alcohol; they will suck out various liquids with thick needles, and they will stuff its orifices with cotton. Nurses will place a ribbon around its jaw to keep its mouth closed; they will force its hands into the shape of a prayer before the body hardens. They have tied the hands, as if binding them as if it were a criminal; but the only crime the dead have committed is to die, betraying the mission of the hospital and the selfish will of the living.
We will not see this; we are ushered out, and while the nurses are remolding this man into a dead body, the living must declare it dead and prepare for its transportation from the hospital. After all, hospitals are for the living, not the dead.
The permission to transport the body is now signed and ready. The living are bound to permissions, both tangible and invisible, and so are the dead. Doctors and nurses line up by the side entrance, away from the eyes of patients who fear the same exit, and bid him farewell. As the dark station wagon slowly depart, they bow deeply and do not straighten their backs until the car has disappeared from view. It is the small gesture they can make to honor the body’s final fight, to honor the man who went through surgeries and chemotherapy, almost transforming him—it—into pain itself- but not quite.
Go home. There is no need to stay at the hospital.
But before you go home, call the relatives, for they also must be there to welcome it home. The soul of the departed will already be there, waiting, observing. Behave, for the dead will be watching. Once it arrives, we must lay it out in the living room, its head facing north, because that is where the gate between this world and the other lies, because the soul needs to know that this is no longer his home.
The body arrives.
You will not know what to do because, although anonymous death happens every minute, the personal one does not. You must call the professionals, those who know what to do. And they come, in an hour. The undertaker, sitting in the corner as if he is a part of a shadow, will tell you how sorry he is to hear of the death. There is no convenient time for death, he says. He says that every hour is the hour of dead. He is the guide who ushers the mourners forward through this journey, accompanying the dead to the other world. He is the only one who can give meaning to the unintelligible ritual of the funeral.
The sign is posted by the gate: there is a dead in this household.
Night comes. The body must be watched over. Relatives will leave. We give them salt; they throw it over their shoulder to ward off the ghost. The ghost must stay here, and people should return to their homes without badness. Only the intimate family remains, and the quiet is soon filled by words of shock, not sadness; no, that will take several days, or weeks, to visit the grievers. For now, only shock. The body lies there, still warm under the touch, still elastic and soft, and seems asleep, as if it will open its eyes, laugh, and say, I got you, didn’t I? The game he used to play when he was still alive. And we wish it was the game. We think it is a game.
Burn the candle and incense. Never let them extinguish. Once they are, the body will try to revive, the dead will awaken, but the body has already been dismantled.
She will stay by him, lying next to it. We will hear her murmuring, but we must close our eyes. We must settle to sleep so that we can wake up in the morning and imagine that we have dreamt it all. We know it has happened, but we can lie to ourselves, for just a little longer.
When the morning comes the body is where we left it, with its head pointing north, its hands still in the form of a prayer. Cover the face with a white cloth; see, he does not breathe. See, it is dead. But now, we must welcome the relatives and neighbors. They will come to say their last good-byes, and we must prepare for the funeral. And once the date is set—and it must be on an auspicious day—we must let the others know, for they, too, will want to bid him farewell. We invade the privacy of the dead by opening his address books, his files, locating this and that number, calling, calling to let them know that the man has died. And always the shock, and the retelling of his illness and his last moments. Always the same. And with each call, dread becomes heavier and heavier, and we must open our mouths, slowly, laboriously, to recount the same story again and again without losing ourselves to the immediate grief.
The dead must travel through the river that separates this world from the other. He must wear white, as all pilgrims do, as all brides do, to show the purity of his intent; and so that whatever new color rises, white can absorb and transform itself, whatever the new color is. The dead must wear the travel leggings and carry a bag full of money so he can bribe the god to let him through the gate. The dead must hold a staff by his side because the journey to the other side is arduous. Give him water because the journey will be tiring. Give him freshly cooked rice because he will be hungry as he walks through the unfamiliar landscape. The journey will be long. It is long, but the living’s, through this new region of absence, will be longer.
instructions for the living (2012)