Grief at the loss of a loved one knows no cultural boundaries but increasing mobility may be making death a lonelier affair.
Although it is as certain as life, death is inevitably difficult to confront, and no culture has cracked the secret of how to minimise the pain of the loss. The void hurts as much whether you are Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu or one of the growing ranks of the faithless.
Which is better: a sudden and unexpected death or a slow decline into ill-health and eventual expiration? This is a question that my wife, my in-laws and I have pondered extensively in recent days, after the rapid and unexpected demise of my grandfather-in-law.
Last week, Katleen's fit maternal grandfather died after only a few days in hospital. Norbert, or Pepe, as his grandchildren knew him, was one of the most active octogenarians I have ever met.
Passionate about his work, he continued to keep busy in his workshop, making furniture and working on projects in different people's homes, community centres and the local museum. A keen football fan, he followed his local club wherever they happened to be playing a fixture, come rain or shine.
Then, less than fortnight before he passed away, doctors discovered that he had advanced stage stomach cancer and, because the cancer was primary, there was little they could do except alleviate the pain of dying. The final results revealed that he was not responding to treatment and he was given a grim 48 hours to live.
His nearest and dearest were left in a state of stunned disbelief at the speed of his subsequent decline. Despite the grief caused by his death, it was probably as good a way as any for him to go. Someone as active as he would not have been able to cope with a long period of immobility, as his restlessness in his hospital bed amply demonstrated. Personally, if I make it to a ripe old age, I'd like to die as quickly as possible. Ideally, it would be best if I just didn't wake up one day.
Although I'm not sporty, I am active and the thing I dread the most about eventual old age is the potential loss of independence. My own maternal grandfather, who managed to stay active and independent into his late 70s, spent the last couple of years of his life having to come to terms with the incapacitating indignity of chronic arthritis.
In a short space of time, he went from being able to jump off moving buses to not being able to stand up without a strong pair of hands supporting his creaking and cracking joints. After spending his entire adult life in his own apartment, he had to rotate around the homes of his daughters and son. When we were no longer able to care for him, we went against traditional Egyptian convention and checked him into a specialised home where he could be cared for by professionals.
The death of two grandfathers in two quite different lands has provided me with fascinating cultural insights. Although I have spent more than half my life in Europe, this is the first time I have experienced death here so intimately. There are plenty of similarities in how people say goodbye, but there are also some marked differences.
One is timing. Given the Islamic injunction to bury the dead on the same day – which made sense in a hot climate in an age without refrigeration – the speed at which the whole affair is arranged is breathtaking. I've occasionally mused that if Egyptians could organise life as efficiently as they do death, the country would be a Mediterranean Scandinavia.
Within hours of my grandfather's death in early 2001, he had been ritually cleansed, swathed in his kafan, or funerary shroud, and transported to his hometown – which I had never visited until then – in the Nile Delta, for burial. There, it seemed that the entire village had turned out to say their final farewells and I met a dizzying number of distant relatives I never knew I'd even had.
After special funerary prayers at the central mosque, we carried his coffin, at the front of a long procession, to the family tomb, a kind of outhouse reminiscent of ancient Egypt, inside which family members are buried. Following the burial, there was the Muslim equivalent of a wake, in which a Quranic reciter sings verses of the holy book while people come to pay their respects to the family of the deceased and drink black coffee.
Given my Muslim background, one of the most haunting experiences was coming face to face with my grandfather-in-law nearly a week after his death, at his wake. Entering the chamber at the funeral parlour where Pepe was lying was eerie and I barely recognised the man. Had the rest of the family not been around, I would not have believed it was him. Rigor mortis and the weight-loss of his last days on liquids had given him a ghostly pallor that reminded me of statues at the waxworks.
The funeral this week was the first time I had entered a church not as a tourist admiring the architecture, but to attend an actual service. As a non-believer and of Muslim upbringing, I had doubts about attending the mass, but out of respect for the deceased man who was almost like a granddad to me and to be beside my wife and her family, I decided there could be no harm in attending, especially since no one would expect me to pray.
Despite the cultural and geographical distance that separated them, both Katleen's and my maternal grandfathers had a lot in common – generational common ground, you could call it. They both came from large families and had large families of their own. They both lived in the same home for their entire adult lives and their lifelong circle of friends and acquaintances did not spread far beyond a particular geographical circumference. This was reflected in the large numbers who turned out to pay their condolences and express their commiserations for both men.
By the time of our parents' generation, things were already rapidly changing, with many family members no longer living in the same town or even country. Two generations on, and we, their grandchildren, are nowhere near as rooted, having lived in several countries and bound to live in several more over the coming years. Even those who never venture beyond the borders of their country of birth can experience the relative rootlessness of internal mobility and the anonymity of modern life.
Although I enjoy the unprecedented freedom to roam that our generation possesses, it does have its downsides. I am not just separated from the previous phases of my life by the passage of time, but also by geography. Whenever I go back somewhere I have lived previously, I get this odd sensation that I am somehow revisiting a previous life, as if I have disturbed another me who has continued to lead a parallel existence, and perhaps in a multiverse somewhere he has.
Our dearest friends and relatives are often not our nearest in terms of place. In fact, I'm sometimes seized with wonder at how our intimate circle stretches to the furthest corners of the globe. I have spent more time corresponding with some of my closest friends than being in actual physical proximity with them. At times, this can be a cause of melancholy and loneliness.
Childless out of choice as we are, we also do not have the cushioning effect of a large nuclear family as our grandparents did. Some people would view our choice as selfish. Conversely, perhaps it is even more selfish to bring children into this crowded and troubled world just to provide security and guaranteed care in one's dotage.
As someone who is not patriotic or religious, there is also the question of where to be put to rest. Many Arabs who live in the west choose to be “repatriated” when they die, but perhaps I'll just choose to be buried where I fall. After all, where would I be repatriated to: Egypt, England, or Belgium – three countries in which I have spent significant portions of my life?
Not being someone who invests much worth in ritual or appearances, the idea of a low-key funeral does not bother me. What troubles me is the fact that geography may get in the way of my being able to see some of my family and friends before I die. When the day arrives, I hope all those I love will be able to come together for a final farewell.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 20 December 2007.