Alright so I guess it’s time to be cryptic. In case you haven’t guessed by this blog post’s title, we’re gonna talk about death today, but don’t worry! We’ll keep it chill, we’ll keep it casual, death happens, it’s inevitable. Still, the end of one’s life is a momentous occasion for those left behind, and a lot can be said about how people commemorate someone’s passing, or celebrate their life.
It’s not that I’ve faced significantly more death in Hyderabad than I have back home, but that the different approach and general attitudes towards death have, at times, been quite shocking to me. I remember near the end of my second month here, while I was at home recovering from dengue, one of my local housemates and I were chatting about some of my fears and experiences so far.
I had been telling him about how impressed I was by the care I received in the hospital, not just medically but emotionally. He wasn’t surprised by this, because he found that in travelling between America and India, he believes that Americans tend to show more care in death than life. This was a pretty shocking thing to hear, especially in such a generalized fashion, so I asked him to please explain a bit more.
He then told me a story about when he was driving through Idaho last winter for his work. On his way up through one of the towns, he noted that there were a few cop cars outside of a building, and heard that they were there because someone had gone on an expedition in the snowy mountains and hadn’t been seen returning yet.
A week later, my friend drove back through the same town on his way back to the airport, and noted that pretty much every service he could think of was there, including firetrucks, police cars, and a helicopter about to make it’s second run into the mountains to search for the hiker’s body. There seemed to be no doubt that after all that time in midwinter that the hiker was dead, but my friend was shocked that all these resources were being dispensed just to find the body.
He then said to me: “you know, Beth, in India it happens all the time; someone walks into the woods and doesn’t come back. Everybody knows what’s happened. But I don’t understand how there can be so many Americans suffering in poverty, or drowning in student loans and medical bills, and the government spend so much money looking for their dead body instead of using that money to help people while they’re still alive.”
It’s definitely an interesting take that I’d never thought of before. Of course, the distribution of public funds is much more complicated than that, but the moral questions are still valid. Why do so many of us seek closure when someone dies? We're often filled with regret when we hear of an unexpected death, so why don’t we try harder to improve each others’ lives when alive?
In my last few months here, I’ve gotten to observe some more specific differences of how death is treated differently in India. I have grown to appreciate that many people just accept death as a part of life. While people mourn and perform their own community rituals, the people who are on the periphery of these events don’t put up such a performative show about their emotional relationship to that person.
For example, when I visited this same friend’s village in October, I was driven from the airport by their family driver, who, whenever we passed a waterfall, would stop and point it out to me. Three weeks later, my friend told our host family at dinner that this driver had died of a heart attack. While I was shocked at the sudden news and felt the need to reminisce about this man, the rest of my host family, who had met him once on their own visit years ago, expressed their condolences and acknowledged the passing, but didn’t try to pretend they knew him any better than they actually did. My friend, who had known him for years, said that it was very sad and sudden news for them, but that these things happen and he will surely be missed. I believed him, since he wasn’t putting on a farcical show about their non-existent deep connection, but he was still acknowledging that his presence will be felt and sympathized with.
When I visited Nepal, I witnessed a cremation that seemed to share some similar values. Next to one of the city’s central temples were the ghats, where the Hindu rituals of washing the loved one’s body, burning them, cracking open the skull, and releasing their remains into the river were practiced. We didn’t stay too long to watch from the other side of the river, but my friend and I saw several different bodies and families at different stages of this process.
While I was obviously intrigued by such a public religious ceremony, my eyes stayed fixed on the behaviours of the family members. There were no women in attendance, and I don’t know much about that, but all the men that were there to cremate their father were dressed very casually in jeans and light coats. They even kept their shoes on, which struck me as very out of character for Hindu ceremonies, but Nepal certainly is cold. They would sit, chat a little, observing the men who work at the ghats as they brought the body through the stages of their process. Sometimes one family member would leave and come back to the ghats with chai for everyone. It wasn’t a raucous party celebrating their father’s life, but it certainly didn't appear to be a despairing or somber event for them either.
Knowing that everyone grieves in different ways, I began to speculate that having such set rituals might be seriously helping this family to have a shared experience. Under the structure of public ritual, they could acknowledge and experience this passing together, without having to perform emotional responses that may not be accurate or comfortable for them. They were all together, and seemed to be paying their respects honestly, not minding that so many strangers were passing by and observing their ceremony. The sacred and mundane seemed blended and overlapped in a very natural way, even though it was certainly new to my own eyes.
At the risk of getting long-winded, I want to end on the note that for me personally, witnessing these different treatments of death has been really rewarding for me. With public funeral rituals and casual mentions of those who have passed, I have found death to be more present in my life these last few months. It’s made me think about death in a less abstract sense, and while bringing it more into my every day life, I think I’ve started to have a more realistic and healthy relationship with it. I’m more aware of the fact that anyone can die anytime, so it’s not particularly novel or rare. Therefore I’m more likely to really internalize the notion that I really want to care for my friends and family as much as I can at the present moment, while I still can.