Should we hide death from children?
Someone must have whispered into her ear that she had turned 100, she just let go, rolled up her eyes, opened her mouth wide and died. She was only 98. She loved her sons fiercely and imagined that their skin was fairer than it actually was; she grew to admire her daughters in her old age; enjoyed the sight of little girls finally when they appeared in the shapes of great-granddaughters; and strictly speaking, she never broke the law while dealing with her daughters-in-law. She was of a time and place, and appeared to be puzzled by everything else. Once, according to family legend, she thought everyone at home was being too respectful of their young neighbour, Mrs Banerjee, and insisted on calling her “Banner”.
A dead old woman is absurdly little. In the house of her eldest son, as she lies on the floor, she is just a long smudge in the white shroud. There are only eight people in the house and as they have not seen death often they do not know what they must do. Can they sit on chairs? Can she be left alone in the room? Should there be flowers on the body, and are roses all right? How is a woman cremated, does one call the crematorium and set up a time, and where exactly is such a place? Do you need a death certificate to burn the dead? But the most serious confusion is about whether the matriarch’s great-granddaughters should be summoned from school to say their goodbyes to the old woman who used to break into a fond toothless smile upon seeing them and whom the girls gaped at with affection and bafflement.
There is a view that children “should not be protected” from unpleasantness and that they must see all sides of life, which, of course, includes death. But one of the great-grandchildren of the matriarch is my own nine-year-old daughter, and as the question at hand is whether she is ready to see the first corpse of her life, I am suddenly reminded how wrong the world is about almost everything. What must I do? When the girl’s mother and I talk about the matter, we are like two actors who have arrived for the first rehearsal of an argumentative play but do not know the script. That is so rare in a marriage where things that are said have been said before.
Why should a little girl witness the remains of death? What exactly is she going to gain from seeing a corpse lying on a floor? How will she react when she enters the room and sees the lifeless body of a person who has held her in an old woman’s supernatural grip, and whom the girl has defended with an indignant face when she suspected the adults were grumbling about her? And will the girl now seriously question my claim of immortality? Truth is important but why can’t it wait? She is having a perfectly happy day right now at school, socializing with other children and, when she does focus, learning “number places” or something like that. Why must a child be dragged to the bleak reminder that everyone who is dear to her is going to die one day?
But then doesn’t a child have a right to mourn? Every time she has visited this house she has run inside to the matriarch’s room and chatted, and at times looked on at the spectacle of an ancient person doing things. Why must we presume that she is not strong enough to see clearly the remains of the woman and say goodbye? If we deny her this, when she learns later that the matriarch is gone and that her parents had fled through some back door with the body, will the fact mystify death for her more than it should? Will she then think that life is only about happiness, which has to be the most naive way to live, on par with the blankness of people who go through life asking what there is in it for them, what “the takeaway” is. To assume that life that is worth living is only that which has happiness in it, is the same as imagining that the only food worth eating is junk food.
So the question is not when exactly must a little human see the corpse of a beloved but something else. Now that death has occurred in the family, what must be conveyed to a nine-year-old girl: This is too dark for you? Or, look fully and carefully at this very important phenomenon?
We wonder whether a child who is too protected will overreact to the simplest of human miseries, like Prince Siddhartha minus the Bodhi tree. In any case, it is impossible to protect middle-class Indian children from miseries because they see these every day on the roads. The wake of an affluent centurion is going to be far more pleasant than the sight of little stunted children in plain sight begging for food.
The girl whose welfare everyone is debating is one who glares at people who discuss her as though she is not in the room, and who pokes her chest and says, “Excuse me, I am here.” So maybe we should just ask her what she wants to do. The wake or a play date? Also, there are some logistical issues and we do not have a choice but to fetch her early from school.
Very few things can be more morbid for a child than the cryptic message from her teacher that she has to leave early. The girl will know something bad has happened. When someone comes to the school to fetch you early, you are not exactly going to the Swiss Alps.
Everything about death, even the transmission of its news, is so unwieldy, nothing goes smoothly. The school’s security is told of a “death in the family”. The guard is supposed to tell the teacher but when he does not find the teacher in the classroom he breaks the news to the girl, who goes numb, quietly packs her bag and walks to the gates not knowing who has died. Whose death will relieve her? When the guard is confronted, he wonders what the fuss is about. He says, what is the big deal in telling a child someone in the family has died?
The girl is finally told of the demise of the matriarch. She cries. At first she does not wish to see the body but then she is very clear she wants to.
She walks into the house and sees the shrouded sliver of a corpse. She seems fine, but does not say anything about the matter. There are many relatives about now, and more mourners are trickling in every minute, but she is the only child around. Her cousins have been “protected”.
There is chatter in the house—about vacations and demonetization and future plans, lots of future plans. This is the triumph of a very old lady—there is melancholy in her brood, not trauma. I am grateful the girl is able to sense it. She too begins to talk about mundane things; 20ft away, the body gains shawls and flowers.
I attempt to interview the little girl.
“What is going on inside your head right now?”
“This is evil interview.”
“Why evil? Do you mean gloomy, sad?”
As is her habit, she begins to ask the questions.
“What do you prefer,” she asks, “burying or burning?”
“I hate this topic.” It is, suddenly, me who is not prepared for the grand subject of death.
“Burying or burning?” she asks.
“I don’t know.”
“Electric or logs?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you are buried, there will be worms getting into your nose,” she says.
She then sings and mutters nonsense and talks about her life and times.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets at @manujosephsan