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Essay: Thanatophobia

Sebastian Partogi
Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, June 19, 2017 | 10:01 am
Essay: Thanatophobia

It is fair to say that the dead keeps us alive. (Shutterstock/File)

Charm, sweet angels, you made me no longer afraid of death” (Patti Smith)

“It is a coward who says he is not afraid of dying when he is potently alive” (Tori Amos)

Over the past few weeks, I had three brief episodes of suffocation in which I actually found it difficult to breathe.

The first time was on Tuesday morning, when a colleague told me about the terrorist attack in Manchester that killed 22 people and injured 116 others, just less than two months after a similar attack in Westminster.

Then there was the bombing in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta the next day that claimed the lives of three police officers. Then, of course, the London terror attack about a week later.

“We have to be ready to die anytime,” a friend of mine, Rosa Vania, told me as we were checking into a train station after a narrative journalism course at Pantau foundation, where we heard the news of the bomb attack.

I could not set my mind straight for a few days because I was haunted by these acts of atrocities, in which lives ended in an instant violent second. I grieved for people I never knew who had lost their lives in such a senseless way. I also remember how terrorist attacks seem to have increased steeply in the past few years.

Then an egocentric fear surfaces: what if people I know or I myself become victims of such actions? Political writer Francis Fukuyama once wrote in his seminal 1992 work that human beings have a paradox: while they fear a violent death more than anything, they are also able to commit unthinkable atrocities in the name of defending the pride of one’s tribe or one’s clan.

I find it difficult to discern that so many innocent people, who may have no idea about whatever political turmoil is going on out there, should fall victim to such acts of brutality. “Innocence targeted, whose God is this?” a line, from Tori Amos’ song “Seaside” always plays in my mind whenever I hear news of terrorist attacks. No wonder, since the song starts with the line, “heard from the TV of the latest bombing…

I also find it difficult to accept the untimely death of ex-Soundgarden frontman, Chris Cornell, who committed suicide. I also haven’t recovered from the grief brought by the death of my grandmother. A colleague passed away suddenly last year. Death has become closer. I have come to recognize its concrete, real existence.

Just recently, I was also been confronted by the fact that my own mortality is real, not just an idea. For the past one-and-a-half years, I’ve been working on longitudinal public awareness advertorials supported by a big private health institution looking to educate people on different types of illnesses and ailments.

Two things strike me at the core while doing the longitudinal campaign project: the fact that many ailments, from Alzheimer’s, cancer or autoimmune disease, are genetic in nature, which means that once we carry the genes to these illnesses, there’s little we can do to avoid them; and although modern medical science has helped boost people’s life expectancy, disease can reach a point where further medical intervention is futile.

Talk about painful ways to die.

My anxiety somehow resolved itself after reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortaland Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. These two books, confronting issues of mortality, do make me realize that our goal should not be to die in a good way but live our lives fully. Understanding that death is concrete, now I strive to be mindful all the time.

With the help of a friend who used to work as a nurse at a private hospital, I have also learned to accept that death is a part of life. She said people in the hospital eventually surrendered themselves when it’s time. Perhaps just like what Tom Waits sings in his song “Time,” “so close your eyes, son, this won’t hurt a bit….

It is not a reaping. Instead, she will pluck you, gently, like a feather, or a flower for her hair, as writer Neil Gaiman says. Hopefully. We will all face the end gracefully.



Is Death truly the end?

Some traditions believe in the concept of reincarnation. Life continues to its next port of call, its place. In physics we also know that matter never dissolves; it just keeps reforming.

You might say to me that the idea of a formal reincarnation is not everyone’s cup of tea. Fair enough. Forensic anthropologist Etty Indriati, in an interview with senior Kompas reporter Maria Hartiningsih in a 2008 article titled “Merenda Kesementaraan Hidup” (Weaving Life’s Temporality) explains how the life cycle continues through biochemical processes. Here’s an excerpt from Indriati’s explanation:

“With death, humans return to nature what they have taken from it […] when death comes to take us, our bodies gradually decompose, from individuals to organs, tissues, cells, molecules, atoms to subatomic particles […] turn into phosphor, phosphate, natrium, calcium hydrogen, sulphur, which make nature fertile, and every creature who breathe in the millions of atoms released in the air.”

It is fair to say that the dead keeps us alive.

Furthermore, I also learned this idea that although our bodies can wither and die, our ideas and spirit will live on. Fukuyama argued in his book that the progress of human science relied on the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom that is passed down through generations.

George Eliot (the pseudonym used by Marian Evans) wrote in her 1860 book The Mill on the Floss that through literary works, the wisdom achieved through the sufferings of the previous generations are distilled so that the next generations may enjoy the benefits of advancements made possible from it.

The spirit also continues to live. In February, I went to late prominent Indonesian designer Iwan Tirta’s house — for an article that sadly never materialized — and suddenly felt this unexplainable positive vibe inside. I felt the great man’s presence in the house and was inspired to be great myself.

Our bodies will unquestionably succumb to physical deterioration. We, however, must pass wisdom and knowledge to the next generation, members of which will pass them onward. The fight to free the human soul and spread kindness continues.

Because I started this article with stories on terrorist attacks, to close this article, let me recite words of wisdom I remember from watching Oprah Winfrey following the 9/11 tragedy. She said something that stuck with me to comfort families grieving over loved ones lost in the wake of the attack.

“People who have passed away are angels that remind us how precious our life is.”