Dr. Keerthi Jayasekera
Sometimes you come across people who say they do not fear or care about death. This is more so when they are in good health, free of encumbrance and other problems of day to day life.
Hence to me it sounds more an expression of euphoria of a sense of well-being than a fact of life. However, this same person, when afflicted with illness, the mind and body are not in harmony with the subconscious fear of death, which is the fear of the unknown, seeks treatment from his or her family Physician or the MO, OPD of a government hospital. If they get well, all is well, the doctor is just fine and is complimented. If not a referral is sought to a specialist of their own choice. The consultant orders the relevant tests and the treatment is prescribed. If they get well the consultant is highly recommended for others to seek treatment. This in turn has led to a state of affairs where self-referral to a consultant, has now become common practice in this country.
If they fail to get cured, the consultant admits them to a private on state hospital as the case may be for further investigations and specialised treatment. Under treatment in hospital either they will get well or they will get worse and end up with death. Only then the drama begins since the Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers in this country do not accept death that easily. They try to find some fault in the doctors, nurses, hospital management, or one among themselves to apportion blame on and lament over, so much as to say had if this had not happened, their relative would be still alive. They conveniently forget their religious teaching like impertinence, God’s will and the inevitability of death, and seek a life of immortality among the lesser mortals like themselves. I recall to memory what once an old, veteran consultant physician told me as a young House Officer. “Remember, young man in treating patients, whatever you do to some and whatever you do not do to the others, some will live and some will die”.
On another occasion a professor of Mathematics referring to the big fuss made over the death of a VVIP told me, “Doc, the cemetery is full of people who once thought that they were indispensable”. All what the Buddha taught was the very unsatisfactory nature of life, since it is constantly subjected to change. Death, dying and decay. This is the reality and the summary of Buddha Dhamma is to develop the ability to view things as they really are. Emotions have no place in Buddhism, since it clouds one’s consciousness and thus prevents one’s ability to reason. The Buddha says from all the attachments one has in life- the attachments to one’s views is the worst. The Buddha says the uniqueness of a human being is his ability to reason, which the other animals do not possess. Hence Buddhism is described as the Doctrine of reasoning, pure human psychology. In the evolution of Indian Epistemology the Vedic texts belong to Theology, which was followed by the Upanisads, where man looks inwards and developed in to Anthropology. This led to blossoming of the fine flower of Indian Epistemology which is pure and simple psychology that the Buddha discovered and preached to the world.
Despite the fact that people do not accept death easily, it is indeed heartening to note that there are some enlightened, realistic people who do not want to cause misery and inconvenience to others, accept the inevitable and plan their exit well in advance. This is a fundamental right, but often violated in society.
A case in point came to my mind. Way back in the late seventies, I was working as a House Officer in a leading private Hospital in Colombo. Arthur George Fernando (76), hair cut short, white, 5 feet 3 inches in height, dressed in pure white shirt and white sarong was admitted to this hospital in a state of chronic heart failure. He was being treated by a highly respected, Buddhist senior physician, who in turn enjoyed a lucrative private practice since his retirement, from the General Hospital. Colombo.
In illness and in good health, Arthur always had a wide smile which showed no teeth. Breathless as he is, he would turn to the physician and tell him: “Sir when I die you must please see that my body is sent to the Medical College”. The first time I heard it, I was shocked and amased. Fernando had been a very successful fish businessman from Moratuwa, till he retired at seventy and handed the business over to his only son, Joseph. He too is doing well in life. Since the death of his wife Engalthina, 5 years ago, he now lives with his only daughter Theresa, her husband Peter and the two children. They all love and care for him very much. The radiant smile on his face is testimony to that.
Invariably the old man is brought to hospital by his daughter Theresa. When he got better at the first occasion I asked him
“Mr. Fernando you are a devoted Roman Catholic, why not a service and then the burial?
His answer was : “I want the service but not a burial !”
I asked “why not” ?
His answer was: “Doctor , I have not wasted anything in my life. I consider to waste is to sin. I do not want the worms to eat up my body when I am placed six feet underground!. On the other hand if I send my body to the Medical College, the young budding doctors will put it to good use by learning more about the human body. If there were no bodies, when you were in Medical College, how could you have learnt the things you should know and become a doctor”. I did not want to question him further. What astonished me was the fact that the thinking sounds more like a Buddhist than the Christian that he was.
Then looking straight in my face he said: “Doctor, I feel God is in my heart. I do not want the worms and germs to thrive on it. I am a heart case for the past six years, the big doctor and you had kept me going because of you knowledge of heart disease. Is it not better for the young medical students to know more about the heart disease. I am suffering from by cutting it open and learning more about it when the heart is of no use to me! I earnestly pray that some day in the future my little contribution will help doctors to improve the quality of life of heart patients like me.” He continued “Doctor, you will never know that the agony I went through, and the relief you all gave me up to now and it will end one day. I am ever grateful for what you all have done for me, but when the time comes I will have to go. If my heat can be put to good use, for study about my illness, that is the gift I wish to leave behind in gratitude”.
When Fernando had been brought for the sixth time with heart failure, he had been in pretty bad shape. I happened to be off for the weekend. When I came back for work. I met the senior physician in the hospital corridor. As he saw me he said: “ Our friend, old Fernando came back yesterday gasping for breath. Before you could say Jack Robinson, he popped off! He did not respond to resuscitation.
I asked “Sir did you manage to send the body to the Medical College?”
The physician said, “When I told this to his son Joseph, do you now what he said? “He said apologetically, Sir it is easy for father to say that, but what will the relatives and villagers say! They will point a finger at me and say, see this “Josa” stingy fellow, because he did not want to spend for the “box” coffin, he sent the old man free of charge to the Medical College. Sir, funerals in our area is a big thing. We have to cry loud, keep the body as long as we can and show our grief in a very big way. He had told me what he told you as well. But, Sir, I was forced by society to violate my father’s last wish to dispose his body in the manner he thought best! “ All what I did was to place my forehead on his head just before the coffin was closed and kneel and ask for forgiveness from my father, for I felt I did not know what I was doing”. Thus ended the tragedy of a violation of a fundamental right of a dead man!
What impressed me most was the ease with which Fernando accepted and prepared himself for the final exit up to the very end. To this God fearing, devoted Catholic, the meaning of service to God and the very rational reasoning behind that kind of thinking reminds me a few lines from a poem by the Nobel Prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore which runs as follows:
“ Inside the locked up dark chamber, all the hymns you sing and all the prayers you say, God cannot hear, since out in the pelting rain where the fields are ploughed and in the scorching mid-day sun where the roads are made, is where the God resides!”
Buddha’s advice to the first 60 monks he sent to the world as missionaries to explain the Dhamma, was not to explain “Nirwana” to the society, but out of compression for the whole world to engage in the service and wellbeing of mankind.