My father used to tell us a story about a young non-resident Pahadi cousin who had done well in Mumbai. He was an only child but his parents continued to live in their ancestral home in Almora. When his father was dying, he came home just in time to do his duty as a son to perform the old man’s last rites.
The priest and the clan were all there when he was told that he and his three cousins had to shave their heads before carrying the bier to the ghat. They would be followed by the clan and various friends. When the uppity youth refused, he was told that the samaaj (society) would withdraw from the ritual.
“You may then carry his body yourself to the cremation ghat,” he was told.
The nonplussed son relented and performed all the rites – including feeding all the participants – in his father’s antyeshti (last rites) both after the cremation and again on the 13th day, when the ashauch (unclean) period was over.
The purpose of the story is to drive home the centrality of all of society in both the life and death of an individual.
It was therefore necessary, we were told, to maintain cordial relations with all those you lived among and respect the traditions that marked the various samskaras we were all to pass through. Antyeshti was the last in a long chain of these ritual samskaras that must all be performed with the entire clan and indeed all other loved ones.
That is why the furor over public cremations being “polluted” by being depicted is so puzzling. Today, the last rites of relatives and their cremations are routinely transmitted on Skype. This allows not just relatives living abroad, but also many local but quarantined family members, to have one last glimpse of their loved one, accept the finality of life and bid farewell, if only through pictures.
Antyeshti literally means the final yagna. The ritual, as described in the Sutra literature, treats the lifeless body as Aashuddha or unclean (jaimini sutra) and believes fire purifies it by returning it the the five elements, including the waters of a river wherein the ashes must be immersed.
Major authorities like Manu and Yagyavalkya also corroborate the view and prescribe in detailed steps the various rituals the members of the family of the deceased must perform. The son’s lighting the pyre shows the accompanying party how life must go on – and does. The family also performs several rituals with the son who sets the pyre alight leading them.
This is to bring home to him his new responsibility to represent the departed one. It is believed that step by step, assisted by his clansmen he must set free their dear one’s soul (believed to stay on earth for ten days).
Once the 13 days are over, the family again interacts with society. This is followed by annual commemorative shraddha during the 15-day period before Navratri. Each time, social ties and the gathering of as many relatives, clansmen and presence of priests who must be welcomed, fed and sent off respectfully, is deemed essential.
There is nothing guhya (hidden) or segregationist here. Death must be accepted in its cruel inevitability by both the young and the ageing, not once, but each time any loved one in one’s society dies.
Therefore beaming images of funerals can by no means be construed as breaking of a sacred taboo. Covid-19 has underscored this painfully where each day you see families deprived of a chance to give a dignified farewell to loved ones due to quarantine rules. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.
Mrinal Pande is a veteran journalist and author.