I remember the first day me and my friends were roaming through the labyrinth streets of the old city Cairo, walking through different levels, listening to the fascinating stories of decades of war, the fertile land on the banks of Nile, the pyramids, the Coptic churches - one of us commented – “Everything here seems to only celebrate death!” The next day we went to visit the pyramids in the middle of the desert. Standing in front of one of the world’s ancient wonders - the grand structures built with stone rising like a prayer towards the sun – we realized our mistake! The pyramids were indeed built for the dead – but death was thought of as a hiatus – not a termination. So they stocked the tombs with all that was thought necessary to lead a life – grains, water, clothes, wine – along with a special boat that was buried next to the pyramid – a boat that the dead soul would use to float back to life. To them, death was like the night of life. Just as the sun sets at the end of a day only to rise the next morning – death was thought of as a transition from one life to another.
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have grappled with the fury of nature for bare survival. Initially when they could not understand it they feared it, worshipped it – praying for peace and calm. But with time as they came to understand the patterns that governed nature, they tried to tame it through science and engineering - death is perhaps still an aspect of life that they have not been able to come to terms with completely. Does a human being cease to exist when the body ceases to exist? A difficult question which has no single answer. A human being continues to exist after death through the genes of ancestors, and also through his or her achievements and creativity. Science does have an answer to what happens to the body – but human existence is not about the corporal existence alone. There is no credible evidence about what awaits humans after death.

The intrigue of the unknown gives birth to both fear and creativity. All societies perform a set of rites to pay respect to the departed soul after death. The near and dear ones of the deceased get consolation from these rites that their beloved will be fine in another world – a world which may or may not exist outside our imagination. The most interesting aspect of this belief is that while no one has definitely been able to give an exact and credible description of an after-world – no one has been able to prove it beyond doubt also that death is indeed a termination of both body and soul.

Keeping a day aside for the departed souls is a common phenomenon across religions - “Bhut Chaturdashi,” “All Saint’s Day” “Halloween” or “All Hallows Day” – are all dedicated to the remembrance of the departed souls. Interestingly, all these days come close to one another – at the onset of Autumn – when the days start getting cold and short – night descends early. Death and darkness have always been traditionally linked.
Lighting candles and lamps to scare off the evil spirits during these festivals is a common phenomenon observed across the world. Offering homage to the dead and also request their blessings for a peaceful and prosperous life is a mixture of gratefulness, reverence and fear. Ignorance also increases the stature of a departed soul. As soon as a mere mortal becomes a spirit, he or she is ascribed the power of a fortune-teller – one who should be able to predict our future.

While increasing mechanization of different aspects of human lives have changed the day to day existence of generations in substantive ways, it is interesting to observe that customs related to death are surprisingly unchanged. Death reminds us of the transience of life. Till the inevitability of death can be definitively conquered, the uncertainty of life after death will rule human imagination. There will be rituals and practices to understand and overcome it. The human ear will be eager to hear about para-normal experiences and near-death experiences. I don’t see any dearth of interest in planchets and other mechanisms for communicating with the dead or in ghosts and spirits till death can be deciphered.



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