I'm going to make a bold claim: people rarely discuss death. It's something that every last person on this planet is destined to experience yet I think in modern society the concept of death and the transient nature of life has been pushed far, far down the list of topics people are comfortable discussing. Maybe it has always been so but while I have no idea if mortality has ever been a dinner-table conversation, it's certainly true that in times gone by death was a much more regular event and much more a part of people's everyday lives.
As an example, churches were once the centre of the community - the place where everybody visited on a regular basis. If you ever visit an old church you'll find a graveyard adjacent to it in a prime location - often having to walk past it to enter the church. Nowadays graveyards have been relocated to out of town sites - out of sight and out of mind. Medicine and agricultural advancements have also contributed to leave death at the fringes of our existence and it has become so easy to forget that life is not forever despite a complete subconscious awareness that it is.
Today I went to a talk titled "Coping with Death, Dealing with Grief" held by The City Circle. A little bit of a sombre title but the essence of the topic was the Islamic perspective on dealing with grief. The speaker (Shaykh Yunus Dudhwala) was very credible and well qualified to discuss the issue as the Head of Chaplaincy and Bereavement Services at Barts Health NHS Trust.
To react to death and to grieve is perfectly natural and human and no one should be ashamed of such. Grief and bereavement show the depth of the bond between the departed and those left behind and comes from a compassionate and merciful place and this should not be forgotten. Different people do react differently to the death of someone close to them - their cultural and religious background affects their reaction as does their own belief of what death is. If they believe in life after death then that leads to a different view to someone who believe death is final.
Islamic theology and practice is heavily rooted in the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and one of the early points made was that the Prophet (pbuh) experienced the loss of relatives of every relationship: father, mother, grandparents, wife, uncles, sons, daughters and friends. The example is there for every situation and always he counselled and practiced patience and forbearance. The speaker shared a number of traditions describing the Prophet's instructions and comments to people suffering through grief. He encouraged compassion that allows for the release of grief. Crying and sadness are perfectly natural reactions and should not be discouraged - to feel is to be human and we are but human. Do not be too quick to judge the level of others' grief - some are stoic, others are more emotional. To each their own way of dealing with it and the best thing you can do is to support them and be there for them. That said though, some level of self-control is required in Islam - grief is personal and does not need to be announced to the world. Wailing, smashing things, screaming - all of these are not allowed.
At the heart of it is the concept of patience and the famous verse "Allah is with those who are patient". Demonstrating patience and exercising self control at the time when feelings are most raw and you are at your most vulnerable is the pinnacle of spiritual achievement. Incredibly hard to do when anger, frustration, sadness and wishfulness are all assaulting your mind.
This is where the second major point comes into play. Islam teaches that there is life after death and whenever a Muslim hears of a death he/she is encouraged to say "To Allah we belong and to Him we shall return". A short phrase that has a superbly powerful and profound meaning. It's a reminder that our lives and the lives of our friends and the lives of our family and the lives of every single person who walks the earth are only ever on temporary loan and that the loan will eventually have to be paid back. It teaches the awareness that the time is appointed for everyone and cannot be avoided. There are no premature deaths in Islam. People may die young but not early as it was ever written thus.
So with this awareness what does it mean for us? To me, the blessing in all this is that the length of the loan is unknown to us. That death can come at any time can be either a cause for lethargy or a spur for activity. It's the difference between "If I don't know if I'll get to finish an endeavour why should should I bother to start it?" and "If I don't know I'll get to finish an endeavour I had better make sure I do as much as I can!". The latter is a much more positive view and should be the default stance for everybody. Think on death and your own mortality but let it drive you to achieve, build, maintain your relationships, be productive and generally do what is worthwhile in life.
Yusuf Undre is a teacher at the City Circle Saturday School and runs a regular blog - The Book of Yusuf