The Kiss of Death

Yesterday I finally got round to seeing the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (the one with the sexy longitudinal grid coordinates). Although regarded as the number one naval museums I found it personally disappointing, about which more in a later article.

I arrived for a talk on the death of Nelson, which was excellent and the highlight of the visit, and the guide said something that caught my attention. When Nelson asked Hardy to kiss Nelson our guide seemed to be very keen that we should understand that this wasn’t a sexual kiss—which I think is a historically respectable sentiment (whichever way you look at it people who are departing are not in the mood for sex) but otherwise I don’t see the point in making such a fuss, but this was not what caught my attention. According to the narrator Hardy knelt and kissed Nelson on the cheek and then administered what she seemed to call the ‘kiss of death’ (though I can find no other instance of the phrase being used in this way)—this was the bit that struck me—Hardy kissed him on the forehead, a common practice that had the effect of settling sailors in death according to our guide.

This instruction fits with a Tibetan Buddhist understanding of what to do in death. (I have some familiarity with the Tibetan Buddhist tradition but not the other traditions so I will talk about this, though it may well apply to other Buddhist traditions.) From a Tibetan perspective, the dieing person is in a critical position in their transition to their next life. While the transition can take weeks it can happen quite quickly too, and what happens on the point of death is the most powerful and important time. If the mind is disturbed then it is less likely to turn out well. As dead people are quite clairvoyant in this tradition, and bearing in mind it could take some weeks, it is actually really important that you don’t speak ill of the dead. It is also extremely helpful if the departing person has their mid turned to spiritual matters, so allowing people to make confessions, administering the last rites and so on are makes sense from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective.

I knew of these parallels up until yesterday. The thing that struck me was the value of kissing on the forehead. In the Tibetan tradition, at the point of death it is important that you don’t touch any part of the lower part of the body, but it can be helpful to touch the head. I think the convention is to tap the top of the head where there is an important chakra (energy centres on the body according to Hindus and Buddhists) but there is also one in the forehead.

All of this may be coincidence but I am nevertheless struck by the marked similarities in the practicalities surrounding death in the occident and orient despite the different metaphysical narratives.

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