Don’t mourn the dead, celebrate their Life instead!
An elderly resident in our apartment block has had a bereavement in her family. Normally, she leads the community navarathri celebrations in the building. But she cried out this year saying she was in mourning. Her choice made me wonder if we should at all mourn our dead.
I often hear people say that when someone passes away, you should not offer prayers for three to 10 days, depending on your closeness to the departed; you should not celebrate festivals, birthdays and anniversaries for a full year and, in some cases, I have noticed people even abstain from visiting ‘big’ temples like Tirupathi or their native shrines. Now, my perspective on this is limited to the way Hindus, particularly TamBrahms, mourn as I am exposed primarily to this culture. I must add here that my views on God and religion are significantly skewed to the journey within, to Godliness and to the religion of humanity. Even so, this is not even about God or religion. This is about, as I see it, the wasted, often dramatic, practice of mourning.
Yes, when someone you know and love dies, you will feel sad. And you can’t and you should not avoid that grief. Hold it and allow it to hold you. It will last for a while. But as it wears off after some time, and it will, let it go. By imposing socially – as dictated by the high-priests of religion – prescribed mourning norms, you are missing the big picture. Death is not a dark, monstrous ‘something’ that must be feared and abhorred. In fact, death is the only constant about Life. It is the inevitable. It is the only certainty you have in Life: if you are born, you will die! And as long as you live, death is your constant companion. It travels with you along the course of your entire lifetime, as a shadow will.
I learnt an important Life lesson from a slum dweller several years ago. One afternoon, I found traffic slowing down on Greenways Road. This was surprising because this is one of the freer thoroughfares in Chennai. In some time, the traffic came to a grinding halt. I stepped out of my car and walked a few metres ahead to find that a funeral procession was winging its way out of the Sathya Nagar slum in the area. As the flower-bedecked cortege of an old man snaked forward, I noticed several people, young and old, mostly men, dancing to the beats to a drum. They were leading the cortege. They danced furiously. And I could make out that several of them were drunk. I had seen this happen on the streets of Chennai many, many times before this one. But this time I was keen to understand why slum dwellers acted in such drunken frenzy while seeing off their dead. So I asked an elderly member of the procession if he could tell me what was going on. He reeked of cheap sarakku (liquor) and was probably in his 70s. He was not dancing; but he was swaying to the drum beats and the effect of alcohol nonetheless. He paused though and answered my question: “Saar, we are celebrating that our man is dead. That he has found viduthalai, freedom, from this earthly existence. He’s gone to a happier, prosperous place. We are happy for him. In celebrating his death, his freedom, we know, ours will come too. Soon!”
I found the man’s perspective to be a revelation. I had not thought of death from that point of view ever.
It is so simple. Celebrate the departed’s opportunity to be free from real world issues, challenges, attachments, bondages, whatever! I extended the thought and have since held the view that our dead must not be mourned but their lives must be celebrated. On the night when my father-in-law died, two years ago, I sat quietly and drank all by myself. I recalled how much I had learned from him and thanked him for his compassion and trust in me – beginning, of course, with his choice to let me marry Vaani, way back in the late ‘80s, even when I was barely out of college, and unemployed! It was a quiet communion and a personal celebration!
As I grow older, I find the rituals that impose mourning very meaningless, in fact, stifling. On the contrary, I find the slum-dwellers’ practice of dancing for their dead, of celebrating their dead, deeply spiritual. Many of them may well be uneducated. But perhaps they are more evolved than us. They surely know what it means to celebrate the lives of those who are gone. So, I believe mourning as a practice must be expunged. Instead we must do all the stuff that our dead would have loved. And through doing all of that, let’s celebrate their Life. As for me, I have advised Vaani and my children to abstain from all rituals and instead host my Death-Day party! I have asked them to play RD Burman-Gulzar-Kishore Kumar songs and hold a toast with the finest whiskeys as my celebration at my death!!!
PS: The image in this Blogpost has been updated in 2020.