Books Features

Living with Dying

I saw my grandfather in Madurai, India, for the last time in January 2014. He was already gone somehow; I could tell when I got there. Where was the “him” in him, I found myself asking. We’d written a book together about his life, published it in two languages. But his smiles now were distant and vacant, and what he mostly wanted to say to me was this: “Let’s talk later.” Ayya, who had survived the plague and two cancers, an indigent childhood and the Second World War, trembled now with a fright of death, which seemed to approach and recede in waves. One evening he announced he would die at 5:45. He sat and waited. Then he said it would come in two minutes. Then it passed, and he played two hands of cards with a granddaughter. One night it drew so close, this feeling of an imminent death, that my father sent me to the pharmacy down the road for a few vials of morphine to ease my grandfather’s journey. At the counter, I could barely breathe, keep my own composure from cracking. But that night too, Ayya survived, and many more that year, lingering at the blessed heart of a circle of attentive relations and caretakers. “Care for the dying and the bereaved, and try to provide for a good and properly social death,” Robert Desjarlais might say. “Accompany the dying in their last moments. Make them feel less frightened and alone. Try to make the death a calm and comfortable one” (53).

The measured and deliberate voice that utters these words is, in fact, one of the most powerful elements of this remarkable book, Subject to Death. Whose voice is it? Does it belong to Desjarlais? In their mood and syntax, such terse imperatives, opening each section of each chapter, are profoundly unlike the remainder of the book’s prose. They enter directly into what Desjarlais calls “Hyolmo ordinary death philosophy” (18), a poiesis of cessation, the calm and careful “making of unmaking” that marks experience of death in this Buddhist lifeworld. “How does a person relate the stories of other people’s deaths…without words dancing on the remnants of their lives?” Desjarlais asks (30). These imperative fragments offer one crucial means of traversing this moral impasse, allowing the book to assume the intimate voice of a companion. Unlike the Tibetan Bardo Thedol, which teaches the dying how to die, these moments of counsel in the book, strung throughout the text almost like prayer beads, teach the living how to live with death, how to navigate the dying of those who are passing on. With humility and grace, the author invites his readers to share in the intersubjective responsibility felt by the Hyolmo, a responsibility to help prepare others and their kin for a good death. For indeed, as Desjarlais writes in a spirit of radical and open-ended kinship, “loss nicks at all of us” (18).

I read this book during a summer month in the United States pulsing with outrage over the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, over police officers killed in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, over the apparent impossibility of doing anything with a national populace armed to the gills with assault weapons, other than to invest law enforcement with ever more deadly hardware. I reached this book’s final pages here in Baltimore on the day that all charges were dropped against the officers involved in the April 2015 death of Freddie Grey, a death ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner’s office. In a deeply moving postscript on the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal, Subject to Death touches on the problem of police brutality in the United States and the turmoil last year in Baltimore. As I read of Desjarlais and his American Hyolmo interlocutors grappling with the paralyzing “torrent of images” that broadcast news of the quake, I couldn’t help but think of the shaky and grainy video clips of untimely death we glimpse so often now in the United States, from bodycams, online newsfeeds, and the cellphones of bystanders. “Can a good death occur during a time of disaster?” Desjarlais asks, lingering on the ghostly “apparitions of the familiar” flickering from such images. He rightly cautions us against seeking closure and redemption in such times, for “disaster inhabits the shadows between clear forms,” such that each experience of death endures in its liminality, “multiple, recurrent, unsettled” (248, 249, 259). In such circumstances, this sensitive and courageous book teaches us that what is most important is less the promise of a good death than the possibility of a good life imagined anew, a life willing to abide with the sheer uncertainty of death, unafraid to countenance those most unsettling moments when the world would appear to dissolve.


Anand Pandian teaches anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book, Reel World: An Anthropology of Creationwas the focus of a Somatosphere Book Forum in December 2015.

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