Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mourning into Morning

Driving out in the evening, we pass a lumber-yard. At least, I assume, glimpsing the stacks of wood, that it’s a timber merchant’s. But no, it’s a Hindu crematorium. Then, I notice the ranks of chairs facing the pyre, and am perversely chilled. Yet, the more I find out about the way Hindus deal with death, the more I admire it.
A Hindu funeral generally takes place within a day of death. Makes sense, in a hot country. Hindus believe in reincarnation, but the soul can’t enter a new body until the old body’s completely gone. Cremation’s the kind way to go, therefore, if you’re looking out for your loved one on their way to Nirvana. By some anomaly, babies and unmarried people can be buried. These days, cremation often takes place in a furnace, familiar practice in the UK. Here in India, burning a body on a wooden pyre is still commonplace. At first, I think it’s barbaric, macabre even. Again, I’m driven to conclude in its essential rightness. We have anodised and sanitised death so much, it’s little wonder it takes months, years, even, to recover from a loss. This much more intimate, brutal contact with death means you have to deal with it NOW. Once you’ve sat watching flames consume a coffin, with the heat on your own living face, there’s no way you can kid yourself that it’s not happened.
The Zoroastrians, or Parsi, on the other hand, hold fire to be sacred, so it can’t be used to cremate the dead, nor can the earth be polluted by contact. Their primary concern is that the dead should not injure the living by contamination. These people expose their naked dead on Towers of Silence, to be consumed by vultures. Now, though, the vulture population of Mumbai has been decimated by infection, so a system which has been in place for centuries is under threat.
Here, white is the colour of mourning. The deceased is dressed in white, as are the principal mourners. If a woman dies before her husband, however, she wears red bridal clothes in her coffin. Western weddings must seem inappropriately lugubrious and ill-omened, to Hindu eyes.
The rituals around death are well-defined in Hindu culture. Everybody knows where you are and what you’re doing. On the way back from the funeral, the whole family have to bathe and change their clothes completely before entering the house again, which is itself purified by the priest. Then begins a twelve-day period of mourning, samskara, when the family keep to the house, because they’re considered impure. On the thirteenth day, there is a final ceremony, kriya, before the family resume their normal lives. You concentrate for that intense period of bereavement, then life beckons.
In my experience, bereavement means being catatonic for six months, with people crossing the road to avoid speaking to you. The Hindu way is so much more healthy, because it allows death a place. You bite on the sore tooth of loss, until the pain is its own anaesthetic. And then life says, “Enough!”