Book Review:  Making Friends with Death


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Authors: Dhananjay Joshi and Arun Jatkar. Available at Amazon.com $12.00. 65 pages, 2015.  Self publsihed.

Review by Kollengode S Venkataraman

A social change of great significance that has been sweeping the world is the emergence of industrialized world’s model of the nuclear family (husband-wife-children) as the basic societal building block, with support from laws, regulations, conventions, and social networking among citizens. So, in urban centers socioeconomically similar nuclear families by and large live in clusters segregated on the basis of wealth and income. We live cherishing our privacy, not realizing that privacy is a sophisticated term in good times for isolation and solitude. We realize this only when we encounter turbulences such as involuntary career transitions (aka losing jobs), financial losses, and divorces — the changes that we are often embarrassed to share with our social friends.

Or when we face unexpected healthcare issues needing 24/7 long-term care, or the death of our near and dear. Complicating this, the cost of long-term care has been soaring drawing the attention of everybody. In the US, Medicare as it exists today simply is unsustainable. Personal savings of even the “middle class” families are not enough for prolonged long-term care.
Further, long-term care for aged parents in their 80s and 90s psychologically and emotionally drains caregivers who are themselves old, often leading to a breakdown in relationships among siblings and between spouses.

Naturally, the topic of death and dying has received a lot of attention. If you Google-search under Final Exit, Death with Dignity, Compassion and Choices, Hemlock Society, and Right to Die, you will get a ton of information  and advice from ethicists, psychologists, family counselors, healthcare professionals, religious scholars, and even government-funded studies. The well-known pioneer on this topic was Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the trail blazer, on whose death, we wrote this obituary: http://tinyurl.com/Patrika-Kevorkian. Dr. Kevorkian was vilified by the religious and Right-Wing conservatives. His only mistake was his in-your-face approach to draw public attention to this problem. He was also ahead of his time.

Most anglicized “educated” Indians, Hindus in particular, are uncomfortable talking about death even though as part of our ethos, we believe in impermanence and transience (anityam) and rebirth (punarjanmam). This is paradoxical and unnecessary. This is simply because only old age (jara) and death (maranam) give meaning to life. There are stories on this in Hindu puranas, Upanishads, and other texts (Yoga Vasistham). The Gita’s second chapter elucidates on this very topic. Hymns in all Indian languages constantly remind us of this. Even film songs on this topic have become popular classics. Without old age and death, life has no value, or even meaning.

In rural India, people grow up with death as part of life from childhood. Even in urban India, because of congested living, people encounter death viscerally during funeral processions. Subliminally this prepares people to face their own death, seeing it happening to someone close. This is perhaps why there was no need for a book on death and dying in India.

But Indians in North America live in their own cocoons, and are uncomfortable discussing death, and more importanly, the process of dying. This is entirely unnecessary and avoidable, and even not very smart.

For helping Indians with this topic, Dhananjay Joshi of Chicago and Arun Jatkar of Monroeville, PA, have co-authored the booklet Making Friends with Death (available with Amazon.com, $12.00). They are cousins who grew up in Pune, India in post-Independent India. The book starts with their personal encounters with death as young children and teenagers in funeral processions they saw on the street, and in deaths in their own families.

Later, Joshi arrived in the US to do his graduate studies in engineering. As he lived in a bare bone Hindu monastery in Chicago in the early days of the Indian immigrant life, Joshi even had the unique experience of performing last rites for a stranger fellow-Indian and fellow-Hindu, who died resting his head on his lap. The wife of the deceased person, who Joshi never had seen, wrote to him later: “I know I lost my husband, but I have gained a son, for which I am grateful.”

Along the way in his journey into life, Joshi came into contact with Buddhist monks — both from Teravada and Zen schools — and learned the Buddhist ideas on transience, death, and its meditation practices. Taking care of his father-in-law in his old age till he died, Joshi saw people of Indian origin in hospice care facilities and the emptiness they felt: “They were going through the most important transition in their life, yet they had no help from one of the deeply spiritual cultures of the world.”

With this in mind he, with Arun Jatkar, co-wrote the easily readable booklet on understanding death and how to become friends with it. They outline guided meditations to help the agitated mind to accept the inevitable, providing easy and simple readings from different cultures.

The real-life gut-wrenching stories on how people grow out of deeply held prejudices when facing death are inspiring. The authors also give simple mantras for people to recite every day to find strength from within their own inner being. Asmita Sapre Ranganathan has provided nice pencil sketches to go with the text of the booklet.

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