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Jade Goody and the Sanctity of Death

By Shantanu Dutta

I have always been fascinated by the Jain practice of Santhara. In this practice, when some one from the Jain community believes that he or she has lived a full life and has fulfilled all their social and familial obligations, they can opt to voluntarily hasten the process of death by going on a fast which lasts till death. Unlike the fasts that Gandhiji popularized and others have also undertaken, this fast is not a protest fast; these men and women are not having any demands that they want met.

Although this practice has some times been understood as suicide; Santhara has none of the emotional turbulence that is typically associated with the term best translated as atma hatya - the taking of one’s life. Here death is welcomed through a peaceful, tranquil process providing peace of mind for everyone involved and is a ritual of great dignity.

The question of how private and how dignified should death be is an important one and the question has been raised before. Probably in recent times, it was first raised while reflecting on the media coverage of the death of Princess Diana in an accident. The editors of many of the leading British tabloids had agreed that they had helped create a mood in which the paparazzi, who were hounding Diana when her car crashed in a Paris underpass, were out of control. Phil Hall, who was editor of the News of the World, said it was a circle of culpability involving the readers who demanded more photographs, the photographers who chased her and the newspapers that published the pictures. "A big Diana story could add 150,000 sales. So we were all responsible," he said.

I guess that that began the commercialization of death and there has been no looking back ever since. But even so, death and the private life of individuals has been some thing that the Indian media has generally not intruded into. But the rules seem to be changing.

Times Now, the news channel has literally been giving a ball by ball commentary of Jade Goody on her death bed; which really looks macabre. Of course unlike the Diana episode, all this is happening with Jade’s full consent. As she herself says, I've lived in front of the restraint cameras. And maybe I'll die in front of them. And I know some people don't like what I'm doing but at this point I really don't care what other people think. Now, it's about what I want." And since what Jade really wants is to earn enough cash for her children even in her dying days, the picture is some what complicated.

But while the motives may some what blur the issue of the sanctity of death, it does not obliterate it. A death bed scene cannot really be telecast like a 20-20 cricket match of the IPL. There was a time when terminal illness was treated with a decorum that mirrored a society which was, for all its faults, essentially at peace with itself in respect to the eternal truths of life and death. But today, in a bizarre circus that is scarcely imaginable, tributes to Jade Goody are printed while she still lives, there was an interest in filming her as she breathed her last and apparently her reality show producer, Max Clifford is planning stories as he in true vulture fashion , waits for her death. Even the venerable BBC is readying itself to cover the event when it occurs. It has long been said of our time that we have lost the sanctity of life; now it would appear that we have lost the sanctity for death too.

Shantanu Dutta is a medical doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His writings mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion and tries to look at a changing world through heaven's eyes.

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