On Death

When did they first introduce you to death?
I don’t know when you found out, but when I did
I found the smell of incense cloying
They kept it burning to purify the house–
They said let it burn for 13 days.
For the soul to find salvation,
You have to live simply for 13 days.
They put burning coals inside a pit
And the smoke made our eyes water for 13 days.
Kids didn’t know if we could name the dead
We had heard stories and conjured up spirits in our mind.
When they were taking the body, mothers told us to stay inside
And the sounds of crying were the only jarring notes
In what were our 13 days off school,
Running around and rubbing our eyes from all the smoke.

In college, we had a professor who taught Schopenhauer
But all he discussed was death and its philosophy.
How do we know we will die even when everyone dies?
What is the quantum proof? He would ask.
He talked of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Bardos.
The levels of living, the levels of dying,
And Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, the levels of hell.
The leaping flames licking the damned
Condemned to misery for eternity.
It was dark; something to listen to if stoned.
But instead of weed, I smelt incense
And the cloying sense pervaded the air
Till I had to rush outside.
I got a B on Schopenhauer.

One time, I got sick, very sick.
And when they rushed me to the hospital,
I felt it–
What it would have felt like to die.
And since then, I found it chasing me everywhere.
The smell of incense, the white shrouds,
The philosophies, the 13 days, everything.
With stealth, hiding in ambulance sirens.
I kept avoiding the stench of death.
Whoever’s dying in the ambulance will get better,
I would convince myself.
But now there are sirens everywhere
How do I tell myself no one will die?
Death is everywhere.
I am reading the Book of the Dead
But there are no answers
Except that we are already in hell–
This is Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

Isha Singh is an English graduate from Miranda House and has worked extensively on trauma studies for her PhD research.

Featured image credit: Alfi Mahini/Pixabay