Last week I went to get a new pair of glasses. After picking the new frames, the optician’s assistant asked for my old pair to see where the bifocal line was. She commented that they were in bad shape. She knew I’d had a liver transplant 2 months ago from taking my medical history, so I said, "Yes, I needed a new pair a while ago but didn't want to get any in case I died because it would have been a waste of money." Without missing a beat, she said, "But you would have looked good in the coffin."
I was stunned. It was so funny, but so unexpected, I couldn’t laugh. I simply said, “That was funny. I like it.” It was only later that I cracked up while repeating the story, over and over again, to my wife and friends. It stunned me because of the context. Regular citizens live in a society where death is something that happens in action movies, but in real life is hidden away. Old people are put in nursing homes, out of public view, and whisked off to hospitals when death is nearing. The body is immediately removed after death, then cosmetically restored to look lifelike at the funeral. If you talk to them about death and dying, in any sort of personal or concrete terms, they tend to get very uncomfortable. So for a citizen to deliver that line so offhandedly, it caught me off guard.
With devotees, it would have been less unexpected. From Jambavan or Advaita, it wouldn’t have even been unusual. Older devotees have sort of a gallows humor slant on death. It has been pounded into our heads by scripture and classes since we were wet behind the ears bhaktas. Even so, it was something that happened to others, to karmis, to those who weren’t transcendental, weren’t protected by Krishna. Now, as we look at old pictures we see that in any group, there is usually someone who has left his/her body. Many of our parents are gone, or requiring extra care. Death becomes more real, more personal, and less deniable.
I Googled Yudhistre and found a site where the Mahabharata is summarized:
“While wondering in the jungle Duraupathi becomes thirsty. Nakul goes to get water for her. In the river a demon asks him a question. Nakul does not answer the demon and drinks the water and dies. The same thing happens to Shahadev, Arjun and Bhim. Then Yudhistre comes to the river. The Raksha asks him the questions. When Yudhistre answers all the questions the Rakasha tells him to choose one of his brothers to live. Yudisdhister tells him that he would like Nakul to live because he is Madri’s son. The demon became pleased with him and revives all the brothers.”
The question was, “What is the most amazing thing?” Yudhistre’s answer was that even though we can see that so many of our ancestors have all died, we think we won’t.