I know this is a strange subject to write on. But a certain item I read in the newspaper a few years back and a certain incident I saw rather recently keep coming back to me every time I attend a funeral – and, I feel ashamed to admit this, I get clinical at funerals, and watch how the bereaved ones behave.
The story that I referred to was a report on the sudden unexpected death of a young prominent industrialist. The report quoted a high profile journalist who had rushed to the house of the industrialist minutes after he heard of his demise. The industrialist had been a good friend of the journalist whose brief words to the press betrayed his awe at the atmosphere in the house where a death had taken place. He was greeted by complete silence. No one wept, sobbed or sniffled. His widow sat next to the body in a plain white sari. His mother too. Their faces were expressionless. The behaviour of the other relatives (not many had reached) too could be fitted with a similar description. There was of course reference from the journalist to the dignity and calmness with which death was confronted, but the subtext of his words was that the presence of death was tangible, and totally unsettling. I got the impression that it was an altogether new experience for him.
A few years later, a young girl I know lost her father and I went to her house on the day of the funeral. She was in a room surrounded by relatives. She was quiet but had a strained expression on her face. The minute she saw me, she broke down uncontrollably. Immediately her aunts went at her – gently of course, but persuasively.
“Is this what your faith teaches you?”,
“you know now he is where there is no pain”,
“ God calls his favourites early” .
They went on and on and on till the girl literally switched off her tears and sat there looking at me, poker faced. My heart went out to her, but how does one tell her,"Go ahead and cry your heart out. You owe in to your father and to yourself”, in the face of such formidable unrelenting efforts at cultural conditioning to deal with the inevitability of death? I remembered the journalist’s awe when he described his visit to his friend’s house. And I understood how that silence is achieved – I saw it in the making. I saw it in its workshop.
Ever since these two episodes, I’ve developed this horrible habit of assessing the behaviour of the bereaved ones at funerals. Most people weep openly, and this averts a burden from settling down on the minds of the onlookers. I manage to get over my blues after a funeral even before I reach my home – except on that occasion that my young friend was coerced into keeping a calm and stoic demeanor by well meaning relatives. And though I was never anywhere near that industrialists house, that picture given by the journalist continues to haunt me. On both these occasions, it appeared as though the bereaved conscripted me to share the burden of grief which they were conditioned not to unload through tears. I am sure the journalist too felt the same – though he didn’t say it in so many words. By the way, in both cases, the people concerned belonged to the same community.
I fully understand and appreciate the fact that this edification exercise would have begun as an effort to come to terms with the inevitability of death – to inculcate a sort of Donne like attitude of Death-be-not-proud-cause- you-cant-bend-or-break-me. But then, aren’t there a few certainties before which it is better for mankind to be humble and submissive? There is no greater leveler than death – shouldn’t we pay our respect to such a democratic institution whenever it visits us? Of course, there are people who are made of the stuff which makes them very irreverential in their attitude to this occasional visitor. They take bereavement in their stride. I both admire and envy them – they are a class apart. But to deliberately and consciously deny yourself and the departed loved ones tears in the name of dignified bearing and image construction is unfair both to the living and the dead. The least we owe our dear departed is tears. Tears are not a luxury, but a right, ‘cos they are an essential mechanism of nature to keep that thing called sanity going.