Taste of Death

A man picked up the phone at 2:15 am, and after a brief conversation said, “You got the wrong number.” He could not go back to sleep. Suddenly he smelled gas. Thinking quickly, he woke up his wife and the two children and walked out of the house. As he was moving away from the…

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A man picked up the phone at 2:15 am, and after a brief conversation said, “You got the wrong number.” He could not go back to sleep. Suddenly he smelled gas. Thinking quickly, he woke up his wife and the two children and walked out of the house. As he was moving away from the house, the house exploded in a ball of fire. The gas leak caused the explosion. The miraculous part of the wrong phone call was that his entire family escaped death.

The paramedics tried to revive a person who had suffered heart attack less than half-an-hour ago. Later they put him on the stretcher, loaded him into the ambulance, and in the ambulance a paramedic bent down to listen to the heart beat again; turning to his colleague, he said, “He is gone.” Suddenly the patient blurred, “I am still here.” Startled and shocked, the paramedics worked on his heart. He survived and stayed in the hospital for three days and then released. The man later said in an interview that he could hear the conversation and feel the actions taken by paramedics to revive him, but was unable to move on his own or speak. He doesn’t know how he got the strength to say, “I am still here.”

A senior engineer of an aerospace company made arrangements with the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and got a job to teach manufacturing course after his retirement. He retired on a Friday, and was scheduled to start the job on Monday. Excited and happy about his new job, he went to sleep Sunday night. He never woke up in the morning on Monday. He passed away in his sleep.

At work, manager of the manufacturing department of a company had a massive heart attack. He spent two weeks in hospital, stayed home for three months and return to work almost four months later. He saw papers and reports intact on his desk. No one had even touched the reports in the file that read “Need Immediate Attention and Action.” He used to spend extra hours in handling the affairs of the department that contributed to his heart attack. Now, nobody even bothered to look at items that needed immediate attention and action. What was important to him did not matter to others. He felt his extra hours were a waste of time.

All these events are true. In three cases the people survived calamities temporarily and escaped death, and in one case the human body just shut down in sleep causing death. In the final analysis the only truth that emerged was death.

Allah Mighty God in the Qur’an said, “Every human being is bound to taste death.” This verse appears in the Holy Qur’ān in chapters Al-Imran, Ankabut and Al-Ambia; the most appropriate words stating that we will one day die. Allah Mighty God is telling us that the only sure thing in this life is death. This is a wake–up call and telling us that day to day awareness of death can assist us in living life fully in this world.

As human beings, we spend much of our lives seeking happiness, wealth, health and other luxuries of life, imagining that they can best be achieved by ignoring our own mortality. Yet, the Qur’ān has reminded us that everyone is going to taste death, a simple, un-scary and humane way of mentioning the ultimate fact of each individual’s existence on this earth. The Qur’ān has discussed, in many chapters the topics about day-of-judgment, life after death and death itself as guidance for a healthier and more God conscious life. Talking about death will not kill us, but, this talk and discussion can help us streamline our lives through discipline, honesty, righteousness and interaction with other human beings.

Many a time, the Imam in the mosque turns towards the congregation before starting the prayer and says, “Pray as if this is your last prayer.” The purpose of this prompt is to remind ourselves that the flame of life may extinguish before the arrival of the next obligatory prayer. No one is aware of the time of death. By remembering death while standing in front of God, engaged in prayer, we are putting ourselves in a frame of mind that will allow us to see the positive side of expressing our feelings about death. While praying, we must remain focused, concentrate on submitting to God and seek God’s forgiveness. The greater sense of preciousness of life can be experienced by openly engaging our feelings about death. It has been found that a majority of the people don’t want to discuss death.

By saying that every human being will taste death, Allah Mighty God, is telling us to look at life and reflect on death, not when a dear one is near death or out of it. He is encouraging us to speak of it while we are in the flower of good health and envision our life by recognising that life is finite.

An insurance agent, once said, “Insurance is all about death; we talk about everything; paying premiums, settling claims, making payments in hundreds of thousands of dollars, issuing premium default notices, etc., but never mention death or say if you die, your family gets the insured money. Insurance is all about death.”

Most human beings in their lifetime seldom see a dead body. This may be, when a relative or a dear one has passed away. The following example illustrates as to how an individual feels about life and death when he is forced by circumstances to focus on death.

In early 1970s, the only burial place available or known to Muslims in Los Angeles, California, was a specific area in the Forest Lawn Mortuary. The Director of the mortuary told the Muslims that movie stars Sabu of India and Turban Bey of Turkey are buried here. Sab Dastagir, son of a mahout, born and raised in Karapur, Mysore State, was discovered in 1937 and was cast in the movie Elephant Boy in Hollywood. These two movie stars were buried in Forest Lawn mortuary and it was the most suitable area for Muslim burial. There was no separate burial site or a graveyard for Muslims in Los Angeles in 1970s.

A Gujarati friend, Mahmood Mayet’s daughter passed away  and his family contacted the Forest Lawn mortuary. This writer was assigned the task of bringing some items to a room on the second floor of the mortuary building. I followed the directions given to me in the lobby and got on the elevator to go to the second floor. When the   elevator door opened, I stepped out, went into a big hall, and immediately went into shock. Several dead bodies were lying on different tables in the big hall. My brain fogged and I saw nothing but darkness in front of me. I started breathing heavily, somehow managed to go to the other end of the hall and ended up in the room where Muslim women were giving burial bath to the body. After making the delivery, I lowered my gaze, walked back to the elevator, and finally ended up in the lobby on the first floor. I was sweating and shaking.

Half an hour later, Salim Mayet, Mahmood’s younger brother came in the lobby of the mortuary. I told him about my experience and he comforted me and told me that he had the same experience approximately two hours ago. I asked him about the ladies as to how they felt. He told me they were escorted to the second floor from backside of the building.

I find solace and peace in the Qur’ānic verses that repeatedly remind us to take stock of our lives by becoming aware of life’s brevity. Exposing oneself to death on a daily basis makes people less worried about the trivial things in life. This has happened to millions of people around the world. A Muslim who remembers death before the start of each prayer becomes very cognisant of his existence on this earth, strives to live a simple life, develops compassion for others, shows concern for others and becomes less concerned for material possession, and in the process, acquires spirituality and greater generosity.

Many people have reached into the deep recesses of their hearts and discovered they were alone in their hearts but not lonely. They discovered God, spirituality and the shortness of life and resolved to simplify their lives, restructure their relationship with others and to devote their lives working for humanity, justice and peace.

The remembrance of death, and encouragement to remember it abundantly, because of the prevailing circumstances, has helped many to balance their lives and to remain good in this world and prepare themselves for the next world.

The Holy Qur’ān says: “Say, Behold, the death from which you are fleeing is bound to overtake you – and then you will be brought back unto Him who knows all that is beyond the reach of a created being’s perception as well as all that can be witnessed by a creature’s senses or mind, whereupon He will make you truly understand all that you were doing (in life)” Sura Jumah:8.

It has been reported that once Abu Hurairah said, ‘I heard the Prophet of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) say, “The Angel of Death once came to a dying man. Having looked into his heart and found nothing therein, he parted his beard and found the tip of his tongue adhering to his palate as he said, ‘There is no deity save God.’ For this utterance of pure single-heartedness he was forgiven all of his sins.”

The Prophet ﷺ once came in upon a young man who was dying.  How are you, he asked, and the man replied, ‘I have set my hope in God, and fear my sins’. The Prophet ﷺ responded, ‘Never have these two things been united in the heart of a bondsman in circumstances such as these without God granting him that for which he hopes, and delivering him from what he fears’.

Imam al-Shafi’i, in his final sickness, said: When my heart was hardened and my courses constrained / I made my hope a stairway to Your forgiveness / My sin burdened me heavily, but when I measured it by Your forgiveness / Lord, Your forgiveness was the greater.

[Mohammad Yacoob is a retired industrial engineer and an engineering proposals analyst who lives in Los Angeles, California]