Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Immortal death: before and after

Karen De Looze


The slow revenge of unforgiving Law
And the deep need of universal pain
And hard sacrifice and tragic consequence
Out of a Timeless barrier she must break,
Penetrate with her thinking depths the Void’s monstrous hush,
Look into the lonely eyes of immortal Death.
From Shri Aurobindo’s “Savitri”


“What do you mean by ‘immortal death’?” a friend asked me, “Do you mean that death is a constant in the universe, or do you mean that death opens the door to immortality?” The answer to this question is elusive, but perhaps the answer is both.

When I decided to learn about death rituals in India, many people inquired why I picked such a “dark” subject. I recalled the time my grandfather died; he had seemed so peaceful in letting go of his material body. This peacefulness dissipated when visitors to his hospital room intensely discussed his “bad condition,” which made his breathing very agitated. Restoring him to a state of peace required intense bodywork. This event taught me that, more so than the dying, it is the living who need a serious initiation to face mortality. For me, exploring this topic was part of a quest to live life to the fullest. I wanted to discover how to live a life where its finite energy would not be devoured by the fear of death.

My anthropological fieldwork led me to India where I began frequenting the cremation ghats of Varanasi, the City of Death, to learn about death and the inhabitants of its kingdom. I wanted to understand the ever-presence of death in this city and what it meant to its citizens. Varanasi is a mysterious city where, on the cremation ground, newspapers are read, breakfasts are taken, and people are drying clothes by fires that are fueled with bodies. As some local friends had prescribed, for hours I would gaze at the most subtle smoke that arose from the cremation fires and try to intuit death, which is the custom of the Varanasi people.

Marnikarnika ghat, Varanasi, Photography by Karen De Looze

Marnikarnika ghat, Varanasi
by Karen De Looze

In Varanasi, all activities are in one way or another connected to the big business of “death” (Parry 1994). When I would walk the narrow streets, it was always an exercise to avoid bumping into crowds of mourners carrying stretchers bearing deceased loved ones to the cremation fires. One courageous day, I took a boat to the other side of the Ganges. The river separates the busy city from the more rural settlements of Varanasi. The rural side of the Ganges often remains invisible to purposeful visitors and pilgrims because on this side of the Ganges the acquaintance with death is no longer “protected” by its inscription in social ritual; an inscription that makes it relatively “safe” to watch. Generally in Varanasi, death puts on a blunt mask. However, reaching this shore, death drops its mask, and one looks death straight in the eyes transforming any mere aspirant into a disciple on the quest to know death.

I was told that in Varanasi, six categories of beings escape the cremation fires, only to be thrown into the Ganges. These are animals, children, pregnant women, people suffering from leprosy and smallpox, holy men, and people bitten by a snake (Mishra 2010, Parry 2004). The exact reasons why these categories of beings are not cremated are still evasive. Yet I believe the key to understanding what connects these six categories of beings is that they have either not yet been socialized, or they are perceived to have transcended, been expelled from, or to otherwise be outside the network society. As such, some may not require the fire’s purification power (anymore). Others may not be considered worthy “sacrifices” to the cremation fire, which is an offering to the gods (Parry 2004).

The half-decayed/devoured bodies of the dead who did not undergo the “initiation” of cremation eventually arrive at this shore of the Ganges; the “wild” side of Varanasi. Seeing these bodies in the state they were in, I wondered how the people that were local to Varanasi were able to maintain such a close relationship with death, not as an abstract concept, but as a visibly real process.

On the cremation grounds, I struggled to interview people who performed last rites. Stereotyped as overly emotional, women are often prohibited from entering the cremation grounds. Their anticipated crying will distract the dead from letting go of physical attachments, a letting go that I believe is one of the most central goals of Hindu cremation rituals. It may then be part of the same rationale that beings who are considered to be less attached to the social and material worlds, for example the six categories mentioned above, do not require these rituals, or to a lesser extent. While I was able to work my way into the network of priests who cared for the cremation grounds, I could not fight my way into talking directly to the dead. I wanted to ask them, “For whom were these rituals helpful?”

Seeking signs of the dead, I would intensely study crows, which in India represent visiting ancestors. During remembrance rituals, these birds would eat the pindas, or rice-balls, that the priests offered them. Sometimes, an interviewee would describe a voice “from the other side” that had come to him in a dream, but I was unable to distinguish the voice of the dead from the projections of the dreamer. As an anthropologist I strive to include a plurality of voices, especially of those who cannot speak for themselves. Yet, the voice of the dead, if not unspoken, remained unheard by my methods.

My research in India continued with a focus on brain death diagnosis and cadaveric organ transfer in Indian society. Gradually, I shifted from studying death ritual to interviewing doctors, patients and their families in hospice settings. A strife to postpone death—sometimes with distant hopes to reach biological immortality (Lifton and Olson 2004)—characterizes the procedure of transplanting organs from the brain dead to people who wish to prolong their lives. Publicity designed to encourage cadaveric organ donation often states that, through this procedure, the loved one will live on in the body of someone else. Hereby, the donor is gifted with symbolic immortality. Organ transfer seems to facilitate a win-win situation, the recipient gaining life and the donor symbolic immortality, both surviving death (Lifton and Olson 2004).

As is stated in the Yaksha Prashna of Hindu mythology, Yudhisthira is continuously surprised that, while day after day countless creatures go to the abode of Yama, or Death, those who remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. In Hindu custom, the death of a relative is an initiation that reminds the living of their mortality, but it is Mahakala—the Lord of Time—who causes people to forget this realization. Yama, who is also a form of Time, will nonetheless come to meet everyone at an unguarded moment. This tendency to forget the lesson of initiation is why certain yogis stay in the cremation ground for long periods of time. The constant exposure to death permanently reminds them of the transient nature of their existence.

Like the inhabitants of Varanasi and the wider Hindu culture from which they come, each culture approaches the tricky subject of death differently. Not unlike the Hindus, in order to gain detachment from the body, Buddhists contemplate the “foulness” of the interior body and imagine the deterioration process after death, ensuring a peaceful death and a good rebirth. In Western society, then, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, claimed that the aim of life is death. He means that each person has an “instinct of death” that is in fact an innate tendency to return towards an inanimate state (Lifton and Olson 2004). Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, said that when man’s conscious thinking is in harmony with the deep truths of the unconscious revealed in mythology, fear of death is no longer overwhelming. Shri Aurobindo’s “Savitri” creates a beautiful illustration how to reach this state of mind.

The dying in fact move towards a goal that is fixed outside all present maps (Mehta 1972), but all of these roadmaps towards death seemed to indicate that by becoming comfortable with my own mortality, I could release the anxiety of death. I realize that, while the living nurse and teach those approaching the end of life, it is the dying who have much to teach the living about death, and about life.

While I began my journey in search of answers, I was left with even more questions. How do we want to relate to life, and to death? In how much of science, however noble and necessary the outcomes, are we running away from sublimed fears? Maybe immortality is about becoming timeless, about releasing the anguish with which we await death. Maybe immortality can only be found when one dances a tango with death, surrendering to the fact that life and death are still mysteries. For yet it is by sitting with death, and not running from it, that Nachiketa gained immortality. Is it a coincidence that it is in Varanasi, the city where death is most acutely present, that Moksha, or liberation, can be achieved by anyone who waits for Yama to pick her up?


We worship Shiva—the three-eyed Lord, who is fragrant and who nourishes and grows all beings.
As the ripened cucumber is liberated from its bondage to the creeper when it fully ripens, may He liberate us from death, for the sake of immortality.
It is Varanasi that is the home to Lord Shiva, destroyer and transformer.
— Out of Mishra, 2010

Live life like you’re gonna die. Because you’re gonna.
— William Shatner



  1. Lifton, Robert Jay, and Eric Olson. Symbolic immortality. In Antonius C.G.M. Robben 2004, 32-39.
  2. Mehta, Rohit. 1972. The dialogue with death. Ahmedabad: Motilal Banarsidass.
  3. Mishra, Trinath. 2010. The Hindu book of the dead. New Delhi: Vitasta Publishing.
  4. Parry, Jonathan P. 2004. Sacrificial death and the necrophagous ascetic. In Antonius C.G.M. Robben 2004, 265-284.
  5. Parry, Jonathan P. 1994. Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



KAREN DE LOOZE, MS, is a PhD researcher working for the Interdisciplinary Center Leo Apostel at Brussels Free University in Belgium. She has a bachelor’s degree in educational science, a master’s degree in social and cultural anthropology, and credentials in culture and development studies. She has worked as an anthropologist with diverse groups, such as the First Nations of North America as well as various ethnic groups from Tanzania, Latin America, and Asia. For 18 months, she has been conducting anthropological fieldwork in Chennai, Varanasi, and Vrindavan, India for her PhD research project. The project explores brain death and cadaveric organ donation in an Indian context.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2011 – Volume 3, Issue 2

Spring 2011  |  Sections  |  Asia

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