The rite choice

Death rituals have been truncated in Indian cities, but more due to lifestyle stresses than a real change in belief systems


The downsizing of death rites is a broad, loose idea, open to personal interpretation and convenience.  Photo: iStockphoto
The downsizing of death rites is a broad, loose idea, open to personal interpretation and convenience. Photo: iStockphoto

Last month, my neighbour, a senior professional in a skincare company, lost her 50-year-old husband. His sudden death started with a complaint of stomach pain and escalated to multi-organ failure in less than 24 hours. Within a month, her ailing mother-in-law passed away, too; her death hastened by the grief for her son. What stayed with me through these twin deaths was a drawing room conversation in their house on the fading relevance of death rites and mourning practices.

Over tea and biscuits, a group of people who had assembled to offer condolences on the day after the second death spoke about the increasing pragmatism among Hindu families of “wrapping up all death rites right after cremation”. Death rituals, even in the modern-day scenario, would last till the fourth day after death.

Families would collect the ashes on the day after the pyre is lit, consign them to a holy river or wherever their faith may guide them—some prefer to scatter the ashes in gardens or fields around ancestral homes—then return for the fourth-day rites. Here, an assemblage of acquaintances, relatives and friends would join to extend condolences. It is also a social event to gauge who all and how many turned up. In some cases, this “rasam pagdi” as it is called, takes the form of a prayer meeting with devotional songs and music and a few brief speeches, mixing the western tradition of sharing anecdotes and fond memories about the deceased. This doesn’t apply to tragic or premature deaths like that of my neighbour’s husband.

“Traffic jams, job-related stresses, growing reluctance to participate in depressing events and a general lack of time,” were cited as reasons of diminishing death rites in the conversation I heard. “Best to do first and final namaste immediately after cremation,” said a senior lady.

All the same, she recalled with a mixed sense of nostalgia and relief how compared with the 13 days of mourning prescribed in Hindu customs, which included partial fasting, a taboo on certain practices, wearing of white clothes for at least six months and a total banishment of festival celebration, it had come to these instant goodbyes: an hour of collective grief.

My parents raised me to believe that “life is no gain and death no loss” (my writer father’s words). Death, I was told, should be allowed to go past quietly with softer footsteps than life and final illness. No announcements till after cremation, no rites, no presence of extended family, nothing. Of course, I wish there was such precise prescription for dealing with psychological grief and loss which lingers long and beyond any rite and ritual.

Not surprisingly, I found this conversation engaging. In the past, collective lamenting was known to have therapeutic value in the Indian way of life, so are we now learning to privately deal with our emotional crises? That may be a hasty takeaway, though, as a newer kind of fuss has begun to sneak up around death. Announcements of prayer meetings on Facebook, cell phone photographs of prayer meetings with the garlanded photograph of the deceased now make it to social media pages and WhatsApp groups. Funeral photographers and videographers are not rare in Delhi; they are hired to record one of the most significant events in the life of a family.

These could largely be urban impulses, even though minor ripples are visible in small towns, too. Fewer families sit on the floor for mourning and almost none wear only white. Inviting professional mourners (rudalis) to beat their chests and lament loudly is out, as are obligations for male members to get their heads tonsured or for widows to have their glass bangles broken by other women.

Some of it gives the impression that a section of educated, urban Indians are learning to do away with unscientific rituals. It may be a simplistic conclusion. Last week, the Hindustan Times carried a story debating online pind daan

This week is that time of the year, included in the 18 days before Navratri festival, when pind daan—ritualistic offerings—are made to dead ancestors. What started perhaps as a time-saving shortcut by a smart priest is today a “modern” option. Instead of travelling to Gaya, considered the holiest place for such rituals, you can choose to do it through a website. There are other such sites for death rites by a mouse click on the package you want (most include videography and courier charges) and paying online.

The downsizing of death rites, thus, is a broad, loose idea, open to personal interpretation and convenience. For some it means an avoidance of city traffic jams due to existentialist stress; others remain trapped in ritualistic obligations but deal with them online and post a proof on Facebook. It may have little to do with new-age wisdom.

Frankly, I find myself rather conflicted about the rite choice.

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