Is it important to die peacefully and if so, why is it so important to depart peacefully from this world? The answer to the first part of this question is reflected in the universal, evocative “rest in peace”—RIP  sentiment which is usually still the first reaction when one hears someone has left for the other world. The ceremonies and rituals, both at the time of death and those that follow vary from religion to religion, region to region but they are all focused on ensuring peace for the transiting soul. Lets also not forget that “unfinished business” and not being at peace are the most frequent causes behind the dead becoming ghosts.

There are two important reasons why I’m writing this week about the importance of dying peacefully. One, as  Amy Albright, a Clinical Geropsychology Doctoral Student at the University of Alabama wrote in a blog titled “A Good Death is an Important Part of a Good Life” for the Psychology Benefits Society, USA : “ We spend a lot of time talking about quality of life, but, increasingly, people around the world are talking about quality of death.” Two, in India, the Pitri Paksh, the annual fortnight long period when “pitris” or departed souls visit loved ones on earth commenced recently on September 13/14 and will end on Pitri Amavasya  on September 28, when the “pitris” will leave for their astral abodes.

Many of the “pitris” amongst us  during this period are people we once knew who lived amongst us, who loved us and who we loved and the realisation that they are once again in our midst is immensely poignant, reminding one that a person’s soul never dies, reminding one of these lines about the soul in the Bhagavad Gita: “Weapons cannot cleave it, nor fire consume it, nor water drench it, nor wind dry it.”  Of course, departed souls are usually not visible but during Pitri Paksh their presence is often palpable, especially of those who died peaceful, “good” deaths.

What constitutes a “good” death?  A study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry identified 11 core themes associated with dying well, culled from 36 studies and include: Having control over the specific dying process. Pain-free status. Experiencing emotional well-being. Having a sense of life completion or legacy. Experiencing dignity in the dying process. Having family present and saying goodbye. Quality of life during the dying process.  A miscellaneous “other” category—cultural specifics, having pets nearby, health care costs, etc.

However, like much else linked to dying peacefully and a peaceful after life, the definition of what they consider a good death varies from individual to individual. Chapter II of the Bhagavad Gita ( 2.13) mentions that death is a very natural process and a sane person is not bewildered by it: “Dehino ’smin yathā dehe/  kaumāra yauvana jarā/ tathā dehāntara-prāptir/ dhīras tatra na muhyati!”—as the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.

Along with the abiding wisdom of ancient texts, ongoing research too is making a significant contribution to understanding a peaceful death. Amongst several useful insights, the National Institute of Aging, the leader in aging research in the USA, makes an important point when it explains that a peaceful death might mean something different to you than to someone else. “Your sister might want to know when death is near so she can have a few last words with the people she loves and take care of personal matters. Your husband might want to die quickly… Perhaps your mother has said she would like to be at home when she dies, while your father wants to be in a hospital where he can receive treatment for his illness until the very end. Some people want to be surrounded by family and friends; others want to be alone.”

Some years ago, Sarah Boseley wrote in the UK Guardian that at life’s end, dying painlessly and peacefully is the goal of most. Cultural norms play a role too and perceptions of a peaceful death vary. For example, Bill Noble, medical director of the Marie Curie Cancer Care and a palliative care doctor for more than 30 years, was quoted as saying; “There are cultural differences within Europe. The cultural norm in the north is to die awake and in the south to die asleep.”

Karen Wyatt MD, a hospice physician and death awareness advocate, wrote in January this year on why some people don’t die in peace. In his words, “I have had the opportunity to witness the dying process on many occasions. I have learned that even though the outcome of this process is always the same—the death of the physical body—there are many different ways to die…. For some patients death is a welcome ending to a life well-lived, for others death is reluctantly accepted even though they don’t feel ready to let go of life, and some approach death kicking and screaming all the way.”

Now, some departed souls too may begin “kicking and screaming”.  Why? Because of a new trend. Times change, trends change  and several people in different parts of the world, including India, have started questioning the importance attached to actions that have since long ages been associated with being at peace at the time of death and the entire “rest in peace” concept for departed souls. Why should the dead who are no longer a part of the living world be allowed to influence or interfere, through a legal Will they have made, for instance, in the lives of those they have left behind?

And the worst part, the votaries of this new trend argue, is that such a Will or something else the departed may have desired or may have said as a last wish becomes almost cast in stone and they’re not around in this world so that you can request them to change or amend it in any way. So having had their say, they’re resting in peace but we on earth cannot often rest in peace because we have to cope with the consequences of their actions. Very unfair.

As Bosley wrote, a good death, like an easy experience of childbirth, is not something that happens to everybody.

Ann Munro, a clinical ethicist who works with the dying and those who care for them said “It’s a lottery. You never really know what it is going to be like.” Now, with the new ‘why care for what the dead want’ trend, both dying peacefully and finding peace after death are it would seem, becoming more of a lottery than ever.