Loss & Catharsis: Funerals & Mourning Rituals Across South Asia

(L) Parsi Last Rites; Sikh Funeral (R)
(L) Parsi Last Rites; Sikh Funeral (R)(L) npr.org; funeralpartners.co.uk (R)

Trigger Warning: This is an article dealing with the sensitive themes of grief, loss, & death. Please proceed with caution.

As someone who grew up Parsi in Mumbai, I have attended a lot of funerals, each one decreasingly well attended. An unfortunate side-effect of attending so many funerals is that the thought of my own inevitable funeral has crossed my mind. I’ve also become a little too intimate with the processes and traditions that each funeral brings. I’d describe it here but I’m afraid our editor might make me delete it. Growing up at the cusp of Generation Z has also made my humour a bit too macabre for most peoples’ tastes.

The fact that we’re only a few years short of all-out climate catastrophe, plus a growing rise in extremist politics across the world, the rise of absurdist humour, and the torrential doom-scrolling that people go through on a daily basis, it is no wonder that the younger generation has more of a sense of their imminent mortality. Be that as it may, however, the fact of the matter is that funerals are hard to plan. Emotionally, mentally, and physically. The funeral rites and processes are different no matter where you are in the world, from Sikh and Hindu cremations to Muslim burials.

For example, for the Buddhists in Tibet, sky burials or celestial burials are the traditional methods. With the bodies being taken up to a high elevation for vultures and other birds to feed on, due to the ground being too hard to break due to the climate, as well as so as to allow the body to return to the earth in a way that generously nurtures the planet, this serves both a practical and spiritual purpose. Sky burials are similar to the way that Zoroastrians choose to conduct their last rites, though this is changing due to the endangerment of birds of prey today.

Historically, a funeral rite in the South Indian states Kerala and Tamil Nadu was the creation of a burial monument called muthumakkathazhi. Derived from muthumakkal (predecessors in local parlance) and thazhi (big urn), it was originated by the Chola dynasty and was mainly used for local chieftains. The people at the time even included weapons in the urn, reminiscent of an Egyptian pyramid.

While most perceive death as a time to mourn, there are other cultures who believe that death is a cause for celebration; for the deceased soul to move on from this life onto the next. For example, the Satiya tribe from Rajasthan, consider death a gift from god; a liberation of the soul from a physical prison. Feasting, dancing, and music are all staples of a Satiya funeral celebration. This is similar to the tribals of Uttarakhand who also consider death a blessing. A group of dancers accompany the body on its way to the final resting place, where they perform the Painsara or the dance of death. It is played on a handcrafted trumpet called the ransingha. Other ways that celebrate death instead of shunning it are the Ngaben ceremony of the Hindu-Balinese people, or even New Orleans’ Jazz Funerals.

There is no correct way to grieve, either celebratory or mournful, and each religion has its own version of what happens after death.

Hindus believe in life after death and in intentional action or karma. They believe that a soul will keep being reborn until the day they attain eternal rest –– moksha. Similarly, in Sikhism the Guru Granth Sahib contains teachings on the cycle of death and rebirth, culminating in a reunion with their god, Waheguru.

Alternatively, Christians and Zoroastrians believe in paradise vs punishment and heaven vs hell. The role of free will plays a big part in these religions. The purer, better, and kinder life you lived will lead you to a purer and better afterlife. Vice versa, the more you sinned, the worse your afterlife will be.

At the end of the day, funerals are for the living. Through organising these elaborate funerals, these rituals provide some solace. Grief and mourning can be powerful feelings, personally and for the community at large. Public laws and political identities can even be formed by responses to loss, as seen most recently by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

While mourning was previously a collectivist process, the onset of the pandemic played a big role in changing that. So as we mourned the loss of a loved one, we also mourned the loss of community support in a time of isolation and heightened anxiety. However, the one thing that almost all cultures have in common is compassion. It is this compassion and shared sense of ‘togetherness’, even when not physically in the same space, that gave solace to communities and helped them to mourn and heal after the passing of a loved one.

Though rituals and methods of mourning may change with time and circumstance, our fundamental need to give meaning to the uncertainty and the unknown of what lies beyond is what will always bind people together, irrespective of their beliefs.

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