Today began with a 4am drive into central London, where a dear friend and uncle was passing away. It was quite unexpected, as these things usually are. We bundled out of the car into the biting March wind, desperately trying to find the main entrance to the hospital. Lights were out, seats empty – reception desks abandoned in the early hours. Unusual things catch your attention in such moments, and I noticed the chorus of birds singing incredibly sweetly just before we reached the sliding doors.
Upstairs in the ICU, close to fifty friends and family had gathered to say a last farewell. Nurses were even threatening to call security as the number swelled and the hallways became packed with clusters of people. I had a couple of minutes to say goodbye – a strange, dreamlike moment amidst the chaos, then back downstairs to wait. It wasn’t long. Death comes fast, especially when you least expect it. According to the culture of bhakti yoga, the most important thing to do in times of happiness or distress is chant the names of God. In doing so we connect with our Divine source, with each other and with our essential nature. So even though it probably turned some heads on a Wednesday morning in the hospital reception, we sung our hearts out. Tears streamed and voices rose, some ragged, some strong and powerful, determined to make this moment count. We sang for the safe passage of our dear friend, we sang to honour him, and we sang because that is what we do.
My Dad and I sat for a while when we got home, reflecting on the reality of death, and the lessons we must learn and learn again, each time we lose another dear one. He remarked that whilst we spend so much of life worrying about our own happiness and satisfaction, what ultimately matters at the end is how much we did for others. These moments, the times we serve, the times we care, nurture, assist and selflessly give, accumulate like the tiny particles of pollen on the leg of a bee. Though they may seem insignificant, it is these tiny, golden specks that collect in life’s jar to become the honey. No one knows when their time will come, but whenever it does, the jar will reveal how much you made a difference in the lives of those around you.
As much as death is a sad occasion, it is a cause for celebration. The person that leaves us also gives a gift – the chance to reexamine who we hold dear and cherish them, the chance to look again at the things we choose to prioritise and most of all, the chance to come together and sing in kirtan – the beating heart of the bhakti tradition.
Two years ago I wrote a little adaptation of the famous W.H. Auden poem – ‘Stop The Clocks’. It is quite melancholy, and often read at funerals, but this version speaks more of the way I see this last farewell.
after W.H. Auden
The sun will rise soon, throw off your sleep,
Today we will celebrate, we shall not weep,
Leave your houses as bells resound,
Let the drums and cymbals be heard all around.
Let unseen aeroplanes circle above,
Let them gather to hear our offerings of love
Hang fragrant garlands around each door
Give rice in hand to the young and poor
The shore bears witness as we honour you today,
May our prayers be your ferry as the ocean gives way
You have nothing to fear as you leave this place,
Run now, run to his waiting embrace!