Raising South Asian Voices

Cynthia Dettman:  Author

A Neighborhood Death and Funeral – from the 8th Floor

Hearing loud drums outside, I stood on the 8th floor balcony of the apartment where I have my room and discovered preparations for a funeral on the street below.  It felt intrusive to watch and then videotape the events, but I decided it was OK because the whole thing was taking place on a street with folks walking and driving by without blinking an eyelash.  This was likely a poor family, and death is an open and honest affair in India.  I watched schoolchildren walking by- probably not the first death celebration or corpse they had seen.

Here you’ll see the body being loaded into the funeral vehicle, with priests and incense burning and a brief blowing of a conch shell.

In the case of death, some Tamil families will hire drummers and dancers to lead the procession to the cremation grounds.  I wasn’t able to find much on the internet, but apparently the idea is to give the deceased a happy send off.  Watching this ceremony, though, it looked like the male dancers were drunk.  There was pushing and arguing at various points and one man kept falling down.  As the body was transported away, there was also loud, celebratory firecrackers exploding.  Only men go with the funeral vehicle to the burning grounds.

I felt very sad for the apparent widow, who made a brief appearance on the street after the flower-covered body was loaded into the vehicle. You’ll see her at the beginning of the next video in a green sari, being held up by a group of women.  She beat her chest and wailed.  At one point she fell down.  As the vehicle left, her companions escorted her back to the lane from where she came.  She didn’t look old and she looked poor.  I wondered whether her husband was her only source of support.  I hated to videotape this, but again, the whole thing was very public.  Perhaps the public mourning is therapeutic.  Such a different process from our antiseptic funerals in the West.

3 Comments

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Yeah this reminds me of the Second Line in New Orleans, music led parades for celebrations and funerals. Thank you for this view!

Yes, I like the idea of a celebratory funeral. Is a funeral for the deceased or for those left behind? And since it really is those left behind, why not celebrate the life of the deceased? It makes sense that we would celebrate and mourn together. However, it may be hard to celebrate a young life lost or a life lost to tragic circumstances.

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