Good Death was published in ‘Homegrown Anthology of New writings from Nagaland’ and we bring this to an online platform for the first time for our readers. Akumtong Longkumer explores the concept of a “good death” and how death can be viewed as a paradox – the greatest misfortune yet also the greatest gift. The author delves into the traditional beliefs of the Naga people in relation to death and the afterlife.
What is a good death? and even more importantly, how can death be even good? Mortal readers may wonder. You might also wonder if this writer has gone bonkers, to write of death that is good. Death in our general cultural narrative is cursed, feared, and understood in revulsion, a premonition we must avoid talking about or thinking about. So feared, I can hear poet John Donne exclaiming “death be not proud.” To speak of a death which is good, a successful death, at first glance, your reaction may be, “are you kidding me?” But if you would allow me to express what all this rambling about “good death” is, I would like to take the challenge and perhaps try to pry open this madness.
To this writer, death is a paradox; meaning it is perhaps the greatest misfortune. Without rhythm or rhyme it dawns on the soul, a rapture of unimaginable magnitude. Yet death is the greatest gift divesting our hectic day-to-day life, bestowing rest from all our mortal worries. It is the seed that germinates meaning in our life. Maybe the phrase “good death” conjures up an array of emotions and it’s good if it does. What I urge is to investigate those feelings and keep an eye on them while we garble to understand death for life.
Long before Christian missionaries with their cross religion walked the Naga-land, the Naga country was rife with spirits. Every act regulated by tradition, the spirit watched every deed, step, and word. And death was a key component of the traditional pattern of life; in fact, I would argue that everything the Naga ancestors did was done with their eventual demise in mind, always aware of their mortality and the cost of bad death. For them, how they died was a vital component of their existence. Dr. M. Horam remarks “…Naga believe[s] the world of the living was everywhere ruled by the world of dead…” This is not to say that they didn’t fear death – they did. Especially certain deaths, which the Nagas regarded as “bad death,” “accursed” or “apotia,” and dreaded them accordingly. Well, this “bad death” could be, being killed by the enemy, struck by lightning, killed by animals, drowning, or accident, and so on. For instance, the valiant Naga warriors took extreme measures to look after themselves, to the point one would describe them to be spineless (as some colonial writers did). But to die of such a fate meant misery upon his spirit and shame to his family. Naturally certain ceremonies were performed to avoid such fate. Remember, in the Naga tradition before the arrival of Christianity, the dichotomy between religion and secular life was unheard of. Thus every action, word, and gesture was ever embedded with meaning and spirituality. The Nagas were, therefore, ever so careful of what they said and did in their day-to-day life.
Life is a journey and so is death. Traditionally the Ao Naga believed that when she/he leaves their mortal coil, they set out for Asur yim/Diphu Yim (the village of the death). This Asur Yim is not simply in the abstract sense. It was believed to be geographically located under the Wokha Hills southeast of Longkhum village and across a stream called Longritzu (lonely stream). The dead undertake the arduous journey in the spiritual realm, heading for the court of Meyustungba (the lord of death and righteousness). However as luck/fate would have it, death gets you in different manners/nature. Individuals who have succumbed to Menen (accursed) death, infanticide, or babies who die before being acknowledged by their fathers all turn to ghosts, spirits, insects, and wild animals. The path to the court of Meyutsug was haunted by their earthly deeds. For a warrior, he will meet the men he has slain, poor wretches earthbound without their head, the Asur yim was a lost cause.
On reaching the house of Meyutsungba, there is a tree of righteousness called Asangdong, and the righteous and honest, undisturbed by their load, will throw their spear/baton and will hit in the middle. Exalted, they are then declared righteous and honest and allowed to enter the village of the dead; while the dishonest and the crooks who miss the mark were declared unrighteous and allowed to pass on to the village of the dead via the backdoor. The scholar Panger Imchen suggests that some believe the honest and the dishonest stay side-by-side, each for his retribution for his earthly conduct and status, i.e. as it was in life, it will be in death. So a rich man retains his earthly riches while the poor remained poor. He further suggests that some believe the righteous lived in the Asur yim with their forefathers and their earthly achievement. Meanwhile, the crook, as narrated by the elders of Ungma village, roams for eternity in a place called Mata Yim, with sunburn, thirst, and knife-edged grass called Nasu ni.
To our contemporary sensibility, such beliefs and acts might appear to be “tribal,” “uncivilized” and “superstitions”- but reading between the lines, one would identify that it is a sophisticated understanding of the world they inhabit, with the knowledge they possess. Undoubtedly it was a culture that inculcated constant awareness of the fragility of the mortal flesh. It was from such beliefs and conceptualization that they came to the conclusion to live a careful, honest, and highly ethical life.
Dominated by religion in the past and by medicine in the present, the idea of what constitutes a death which is good has changed over time across different cultures and societies throughout history. Emerging from the hospice movement of 1967 in the UK, the quest for providing death which is good became the driving principle in the discussion of end-of-life care. Medically, a “good death” in general, is considered to be one that is “free from avoidable distress and suffering for the patient, family, and caregivers, in general accord with the patient’s and family’s wishes, and reasonably consistent with a clinical, cultural, and ethical standard” (Approaching Death: Improving Care at the End of Life. 1997). While some other medical research on “good death” reveals that quality of life was rated as an important component of a good death, additionally, “dignity” was reported to be another vital factor for a good death. ‘The Oregon Death with Dignity Act’ has consistently publicized that the three most important concerns reported among patients near the end of their lives include a loss of autonomy (91%), a decrease in the ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (86%), and a loss of dignity (71%). The research also pointed out that there is a desire to have religious or spiritual practices fulfilled as a theme of a good death (in the case of Naga society religiosity/ spirituality would be a major factor). Finally, although some literature exists on pain and physical symptoms, there is a dearth of research examining the psychological aspects of a good death, particularly from a patient’s perspective.
All roads lead to Rome, however, these days not all roads may lead to Rome but it surely will lead to death. Langton Hughes once said “life is for the living, death is for the dead. Let life be like music and death a note unsaid,” and so too, most of us have likewise thought or said of death, “I choose life over death” or “I am gonna focus more on life than on death.” But on the contrary, I believe that one can never choose life and ignore death, like balls and earrings they come in pairs. To embrace life, it is a requisite to embrace our mortality with our full innate consciousness. Along with sex and financial education, there is a need for death education, enabling our culture to deal with this debilitating topic. Not to recoil in the face of mortality but rather engage with death and understand how the fear of death affects people, with the intention to live a good life. If education is to prepare the student for life ahead, then surely an education towards an understanding of one’s own and others’ mortality would enable students to carefully navigate the world around them, a North Star (or death star) to guide them home.
Julian Barnes noted that “perhaps a sense of death is like a sense of humor.” We all think the one we’ve got – or haven’t got – is just about right, and appropriate to the proper understanding of life. With morbid fascination, I think my sense of death which seems exasperating to most of my friends is quite proportionate. As for me, I have a deep conviction when it comes to death. I hold that accepting and engaging with death gives life its meaning. To quote Barnes again “ Unless one is aware of the limited time of Roses, that roses turn brown and wither away – there is no context to such pleasures and interest as come your way on the road to the grave.” I believe that we as a society should begin the conversation around death. For instance, addressing the question of how people want to die and what they actually need and want at the end of their lives. Perhaps then we can enable more people to obtain a good death, with dignity and wholeness of well-being.
To clarify, I am not here advocating death as some kind of a rainbow field, hippie utopia, or that embracing it would change your whole life magically. Death is messy, nebulous, and with cryptic emotions of anxiety, brokenness, and suffering, it leaves life so belittled. It is also never a mere fear of non-existence. As Louis Hung recounts, “It’s the fear of suffering, of our loved ones, our bodies and identities being disrespected, and the burden of our end of life that might weigh on the people we love. Fear of death is not indisputably self-centered; it can be a compassionate fear.” I give in, that to comprehend death fully is unfeasible, however, it doesn’t mean that we flinch. It is never an easy task to wrestle with mortality and it’s a continual process. One does not simply converse once about death and all of a sudden one is at peace with death. Our relationship with death will change like the current, with time and situation, but what’s important is that we continue to engage.
It is also not lost on the writer that DEATH is something that seems to come upon us like a hypnic jerk. Not all deaths are created equal; openly acknowledging this allows to us focus on this reality and work to change it. Defining the “Good Death” comes with its cultural baggage which makes it difficult to agree on what constitutes a good death. Despite such issues, we should not deter from working and planning toward achieving that “good death” for oneself and others. I am not here to define what “good death” is, for in my judgment “good death” is personal. My good death may look nothing like your good death. It’s the choice we allow ourselves and others in deciding what it means to die successfully. There is no failure, only the relentless human attempt to leave this world on our own terms. To accept death and work towards a “good death” is arduous, it does not mean the absence of fear but what it means is to function amidst the anxiety and fear and even if it doesn’t make sense at the moment, we must navigate through losses and griefs instead of shunning it. Though the fear sits in our mind and never slips away like the crowd, ravel in it, try to acknowledge it, name it, and you will have the power. The writer here encourages you to think about what a good death is for you, what you would like your death to be like, and maybe work on providing a good death for your loved ones, your pets, and anyone you hold dear. The question I pose before you is, “can we achieve something without preparing for it?”
To quote Caitlin Doughty, which rings true evermore, “There is a gorgeous reality when you allow yourself to be closer to death, our ancestors knew that and now it’s time for us to realize that.”
And as I always wish my friends, I wish you dear readers, a good life and a good death.
Your morbid friend.
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Akumtong Longkumer is a research scholar at the department of History, NEHU. He has an eye for the morbid and tries to approach it with a sense humor. His writings has recently been published in Homegrow :Anthology Of New Writings From Nagaland. He advocates for 'death positivity' and believes that we as a culture should start the dialogue around death and dying.