Who said death is inevitable? It isn’t. Not in the case of the Turritopsis Dohrnii jellyfish which is immortal and can transform itself from an adult to a baby and back again. But death is inevitable for all other living creatures despite various attempts being made at different points in time over the ages to create an elixir of immortality. More optimistically, perhaps it would be better to qualify that sentence and amend it to “so far, death is inevitable”. The “so far” amendment is a concession to two unusual ‘immortality projects’ which were launched a few years ago and are still underway.

Some time ago, Todd Van Luling wrote in the “Huffington Post” that we may be closer to living forever than ever before. Calico is Google’s recently launched immortality project, which will aim to reverse the aging process, whether that means just for “five or 10 years of healthy life,” as one Harvard Medical School professor suggested, or if truly successful, living forever. Although Calico, or the “California Life Company,” has become the highest-profile project of its nature due to it coming from Google, another huge project is being run by a Russian billionaire named Dmitry Itskov, which aims to “solve immortality by the year 2045. Iskov’s plan involves building android bodies for humans, into which brains could be transferred, allowing them to live forever in the never-decaying robo-body…”

However, the hope of immortality, never mind its philosophical ramification and other potential drawbacks, has not dimmed even an iota of an almost compulsive interest in the subject of death and an after life, complete with ghosts and other supernatural happenings. Less than two weeks ago, ‘Stars Insider’ carried a feature titled ‘The most interesting facts about death’ and mentioned that hearing was the last sense to go. Spokesman.com clarifies that while some of the articles make reference to research based on electroencephalograms (EEGs) of people’s brain waves that somehow indicate that hearing is the last sense to go, “tracking that research to its origins results in a dead end, pun intended. But when you talk with hospice professionals and volunteers, or with health workers who care for dying or critically injured patients, they are pretty certain that many dying or unconscious people retain some awareness of what is going on around them, via their hearing.”

Some professionals, the clarification continues, base it on later conversations with patients who were revived in emergency rooms and recognise the voices of nurses and doctors who saved their lives. Maggie Callanan of Cape Cod, Mass., is a critical care nurse turned hospice professional and author of two books, including Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying. She has been part of the “dying journey” with 2,000 people. In a recent phone interview, she said she tells families of dying people that it appears from experience that hearing is the last sense to go. But she adds: “Can I guarantee this is going to happen with everyone? No. Can I prove it? No. But I’m telling you we have seen this over and over again. So do not say anything you do not want this dying person to hear. Just don’t. Not in the room, but not even down the hall, because it appears hearing becomes acute.”

Callanan suggests that those at the bedside of an unconscious patient, or those holding vigil with dying loved ones, act “as if” they can hear their words and voices. “Please tell the unconscious person why you are there,” she says. “Name the people there.” What if you are doubtful that the dying or critically ill people can hear a thing? Talk anyway. “Give the words you want to give,” Callanan says. “You have wasted words on far less important things than this.” James Hallenbeck, a palliative-care specialist at Stanford University, often compares dying to black holes. “We can see the effect of black holes, but it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to look inside them. They exert an increasingly strong gravitational pull the closer one gets to them. As one passes the ‘event horizon,’ apparently the laws of physics begin to change.”

What does dying feel like, questioned writer Jennie Dear? “Despite a growing body of research about death, the actual, physical experience of dying—the last few days or moments—remains shrouded in mystery”, Dear wrote in the Atlantic. Until about 100 years ago, almost all dying happened quickly. But modern medicine has radically changed how long the end of life can be stretched….

For those who do die gradually, there’s often a final, rapid slide that happens in roughly the last few days of life—a phase known as “active dying.” During this time, Hallenbeck writes in Palliative Care Perspectives, his guide to palliative care for physicians, people tend to lose their senses and desires in a certain order. “First hunger and then thirst are lost. Speech is lost next, followed by vision. The last senses to go are usually hearing and touch.”

According to “Everyday Health”, hearing may be the last sense to go. Though it has not been scientifically proven, it is widely believed that hearing is the last of the senses lost before death. “It’s the most passive sense,” explains Zachary Palace, MD, medical director of the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York. He says that when death seems imminent, “we encourage families to talk and share their last thoughts, love, and support with their loved ones because even though the blood pressure is dropping and they’re fading out, they can hear what we’re saying.”

Medicine and scientists are just beginning to peek beyond the veil that covers death. In India however, it has long been traditionally accepted in most families that hearing remains with a dying person till the very end, which is why emphasis is placed on chanting mantras, reading from the scriptures or playing certain kinds of music when someone is making a transition from life to death. Curiously, hearing and sound are as important after death as before it. After death, it is the sound of footsteps, a door being closed or opened by unseen hands, a disembodied laugh or cough and other ghostly sounds that often alert us to a ghostly presence. The sound of bells, gongs, crackers, loud chanting, etc and the like are also used to drive away evil spirits.


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