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Death and pilgrimage

The spectre of death has always loomed over sacred journeys

FOR PEOPLE who are strangers to the world of religious travel, the idea of
pilgrims meeting a tragic end while engaged in a pious duty, as happened in Mecca this
week, may seem like a terrible irony. The victims of such disasters embark on a
burdensome journey in the belief that they are fulfilling their duty to God, and their lives
are horribly cut short.
But among observers of religion, whether scholarly or literary, it is almost a
commonplace that religious wanderings and mortality have always been interconnected,
both in the spiritual imagination of travellers and the tough realities of the road.
In a classic account of spiritually inspired travel, the British writer Stephen Graham
teamed up, in 1912, with some of the tens of thousands of Russian peasants who made
unbelievably arduous pilgrimages, across their homeland and over choppy seas, to
Jerusalem during the late Tsarist era. "They mostly hope to die in the Holy Land,
preferably near the Dead Sea...if indeed they must return to their native villages in
Russia, it will be to put their affairs in order and await death," he wrote. And among the
pilgrims he joined, some had their wish granted; returning to Jerusalem from an
excursion to Nazareth, they were caught in flash floods and drowned in muddy waters.
Glenn Bowman, a social anthropologist at the University of Kent, noticed a similar
connection between pilgrimage and mortality in the world-view of the Cypriot pilgrims to
Jerusalem that he observed in the 1980s. "They come to the Holy Land in old age to
prepare themselves for a good death and their subsequent assumption into the
redeemed world promised by Jesus," he has written. Just as Stephen Graham had done
seven decades earlier, he watched as pilgrims approached the banks of the Jordan
river, stripped down to the white shrouds in which they ultimately hoped to be buried,
and plunged in.

Along the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route through France and Spain
whose popularity has surged in modern times, every year brings stories of travellers
who die along the way (often cyclists knocked down by vehicles) or on arrival: the sort
of destiny that was said in medieval times to spare the pilgrim from having to pass
through the intermediate state of purgatory between earthly life and heaven. The 2013
pilgrimage was overshadowed by a train crash not far from the destination. As is

explained by Ruairi O hEara, a young Irishman who has walked the path three times,
the journey itself is seen as a microcosm of life, leading from birth to death. And for
some pilgrims, that is almost precisely the case. He recalls meeting a healthy-seeming
compatriot in mid-walk who explained to him she was terminally ill; on arrival in
Santiago, he found out that she had passed away within hours of receiving the shell that
rewards the walk's successful completion.
Similar stories are commonly heard in Muslim communities where the haj is popular.
Inayat Bunglawala, a British Muslim activist, says he has often received phone calls
from relatives or acquaintances who take their leave of him, and beg forgiveness for any
sins or offences, before undertaking the journey to Mecca; the callers clearly feel they
are setting out on their final journey to meet their Maker, metaphorically or in a few
cases literally. In the case of his mother, the finality was literal. Within days of
completing the haj in 2000, she succumbed to a strain of meningitis picked up in Mecca.
In accordance with a desire expressed by many Muslim pilgrims, she was buried in the
simple white garb that she had worn in Mecca.
Mr Bunglawala stresses that whatever spiritual significance one ascribes to death in, or
as a result of, pilgrimage, that does not exonerate earthly authorities from their
responsibility to make religious travel as safe as humanly possible. "The Saudis have a
duty of care to pilgrims in which they seem to be failing," he says. And he welcomes the
fact that the United Kingdom government, which is quite deeply involved in the safety of
British pilgrims, has broadened the range of inoculations that it tells them to receive; if
that measure had been in place earlier, his mother might still be alive and sharing
pilgrimage stories with her earthly companions.