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Mourning Etiquette of Bygone Era Given a Decent Burial

Published: 29th August 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th August 2015 12:21 AM   |  A+A-

Manners before elders, before the dining table, at school and in office are elaborately discussed, taught and practised widely without any room for doubts or someone going wrong.  But when someone dear to us passes away, we fumble in many ways as to the words we should express, the way we should conduct ourselves at the place of bereavement. Also, tricky is the situation when information trickles in that someone is dying after being discharged from a hospital after failed treatment.

A person’s death could be a major event in his or her close relatives’ life.  Hence, on getting this information, we  would like to honour the relatives by going over there in person and sharing their distress. Going by conscience, we might realise that our visit is unwarranted as the person might survive for a few days or might stay in coma for some more time, or the place could not withstand a stream of callers. Knowing that mourning etiquette is  complicated and differs  in different communities and based on one’s relationship  with the deceased, I thought I should ask my elders for guidance  when a close relative passed away recently.  My first concern was about the appropriate clothes/colours for me to wear. Whether I could use any deoderant or perfume before setting out on the condolence mission. How long should I be in the place of  mourning? And whether I should provoke those already emotionally upset to cry inconsolably by recalling some remote incidents? 

When I actually descended on the place thinking that there might be a pall of gloom, there was none.  A lot of people were sitting relaxed in a row of chairs and talking loudly about everything under the sun — the parties’ poll chances and skyrocketing prices, horrible weather and absence of rain, etc. Symbols of mourning were conspicuous by their absence and gestures of piety towards the departed soul were missing.

I tried to signal others in my entourage that the mourners  could be  in a delicate emotional state. And we should avoid speaking loudly. On the contrary, a few close to the deceased person themselves started asking us about professional college admission chances for my ward and about the return of a close relative from a foreign country in the near future. They could be heard by everyone in the room. Soon I realised  that  the complicated mourning etiquette I imagined earlier were non-existent. They perhaps became elaborate and cumbersome to be watered down and then overthrown by several  generations. When I saw the place full of people in modern dress with gadgets in each one’s hand I was stunned.

Reminded of the injunction to leave the place without telling anyone, we left the scene, and of course, only after making elaborate enquiries as to when the cremation would take place, whether they were waiting for someone to come and whether rites would begin immediately or on the ninth day.

A few days later, I reached the place again and even from a distance I could hear the loud discussion on the menu for morning breakfast, lunch, etc., at the venue of obsequies on the tenth day that is deemed important for our particular community. The purohit was there with his busy mobile and also the local caterer with quotations on his finger tips. The former asked for a sheet of paper from the karta, the doer of the rights and the eldest member of the family, to write down his requirements. These had to do with the articles to be given as presents to the poor while praying for the soul to reach the heaven.  About his remuneration, everything had been discussed.

It was a five-digit figure to be handed over in three installments on tenth, twelfth and thirteenth days. The purohit explained that different sets of priests would be at the venue to officiate and bless the family members. At the end of tenth day rites called Dasastu, I saw the family members assembling in different groups to take group photos, and within hours, I could see them on my Facebook feed. Don’t you think mourning is less solemn and more profane now?

 swaminathan@ newindianexpress.com

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