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Death by the book

  |   Literature

BENGALURU: Death: We generally skirt this subject since it is painful yet unavoidable; often unexpected but absolute. And that is precisely why we should talk about death. As American rabbi Joshua L. Liebman writes in Peace of Mind, “Death is not the enemy of life, but its friend, for it is the knowledge that our years are limited which makes them so precious.”


The first book to explore the now-famous five stages of death was On Death & Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It gives readers a bet ter understanding of how imminent death affects patients, their families, and the professionals who serve them.


The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, which has sold over two million copies in 30 languages, presents the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol. It explores the message of impermanence; evolution, karma and rebirth; the nature of mind and how to train it through meditation; how to follow a spiritual path; the practice of compassion; how to care for and show love to the dying; and spiritual practices for the moment of death.


Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy is co-authored by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton Professor Adam Grant. The book advises us to think of resilience as a muscle, one that atrophies in the calm between the storms of our lives, but which can be developed, so we’re better prepared when adversity strikes.


When Breath Becomes Air is an autobiographical book written by American neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi. This posthumously published bestseller is a moving memoir about his life and battle with lung cancer.


Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death is by best-selling author and mortician Caitlin Doughty. She answers real and often funny questions from kids about death, dead bodies, and decomposition.


One of my early favourites is The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, which continues to be shared across generations. A lot of professors give talks titled ‘The Last Lecture’ where they are asked to ruminate on the wisdom they would impart to the world if they knew they would die the next day. When Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was approached for such a lecture, he had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.


But the lecture he gave, ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’, was not about dying. It emphasised the importance of seizing every moment, overcoming obstacles and enabling the dreams of others. Another bestseller is Being Mortal by Atul Gawande who asserts that medicine can provide both a good life and a good end.


The book is a personal tale of his father’s battle with cancer and a public call for a better health care philosophy and system that would allow us to die a humane death. My recent favourite is Arun Shourie’s Preparing for Death. The section that intrigued me the most is where he documents “great souls” experiencing the often painful dissolution of their own body – the Buddha, Ramkrishna Paramhansa, Ramana Maharshi, Mahatma Gandhi, and Vinoba Bhave, and, as a cameo, Kasturba Gandhi.


This is a book for every seeker! Preparing a will forced to me think of my own mortality. All of us will have to deal with the death of a loved one at least once. We need to learn to talk about age, illness and death in realistic terms. I hope these books will guide us to prepare for those days.



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