Week 19: Experiencing an Indian Funeral

In the beginning of this week, we helped clean the Hindu temple in preparation for an appearance by a holy woman who learned all of the mantras by heart before she was ten years old. The lecture was in Tamil, so I couldn’t understand, but her singing of prayers was beautiful. Amma translated some of the concepts she discussed, which were very insightful. Afterwards, she performed a blessing for almost everyone in attendance (probably 100 people or more). 

Roosters wandering around near the temple
Because this is a Lord Murugan temple, there are peacocks! (Lord Murugan is said to sometimes take this form)

On Friday morning, I came downstairs to find the house emptied of decorations and covered in white sheets, with Amma sobbing. Amma’s brother had passed away overnight. He was 39 years old and had a heart attack. 

With the help of many family members and friends, we cleaned the house and set up a shrine for Mama, the name by which the family lovingly knows him. (Mama is one Tamil translation of Uncle)

In the late morning, Mama’s body was brought to the house in a casket, which was left open with a glass cover. A priest came and led prayers. Throughout the day, people came by to cry and pray and mourn alongside the body. The funeral occured at our house because Mama had no wife or children, and the parents have already passed away. 

All six of the sisters (my aunts) came, including the eldest who lives in India, along with the cousins and uncles (but not those who live in India). 

Dozens of people came to the house, bringing flower garlands and food for the family. Women sat in the living room and chanted prayers, while men mostly sat outside under the giant tents that were placed in front of our house and in the road. 

People cried and sobbed all day. The whole family stayed at our house, and I stayed up late talking to them. 


The next day, the body was brought to the cemetary where it was burned.  

In the morning, people chanted prayers around the casket. Around 9 am, a priest came and performed more prayers. Flower garlands were placed around the body along with a favorite shirt. 

Then all the men of the family dressed in dhoti and garlands with certain symbolic meanings. The string garland is representative of brahmans, (the highest caste of religious people in Indian society) since the men take a temporary brahman-like role to perform funeral ceremonies. The flowers are worn around the neck (like a necklace) for married men but across the shoulder for unmarried boys. The priest used a sort of clay mixture to paint marks on the men, and then led them in prayers. 



After the men carried the casket outside of the house, more rituals were performed. 

A symbolic marriage was performed, in which the priest tied a cloth to a young banana tree. After asking everyone to turn away from the body and face the opposite direction so we couldn’t see, the priest cut down the sapling and put it inside the casket with Mama. 

Everyone placed flower petals inside the casket, and family members did a ritual putting oil on a Lord Shiva statue. I took part in some rituals too. One ritual involved placing uncooked rice mixed with coins on the chest after moving it back and forth from the body’s mouth to the heart three times, as all family members did. We moved a tray with burning camphor and smoke three times in a counterclockwise circle (counterclockwise is for funerals, while other prayers involve moving clockwise). Oil and turmeric water were splashed on the body. After touching the casket and performing rituals, we had to rinse our hands. 

Later, the men carrier the casket into the hearse. The whole family followed the hearse to the end of our street, and the men went to the cemetary, where the body would be burned. My host brother lit the match, as he had a position in this as the chief male family prayer-doer (there’s probably a proper name for this). 

Later, the men (my host cousins, uncles, father, brother) had to sort through the ashes and pick out unburned bones. 

Meanwhile, women  stayed home to clean the house. We all had to take showers and change out of our funeral clothes, which would be washed separately from all other clothes. When the men returned, eveyone ate a banana leaf meal. 

Our AFS Mid-Stay camp (for all AFSers in Malaysia) began Friday, but I could not go right away because of the death. I was eventually able to go to the camp, at the Eagle Ranch Resort in Port Dickson, driven by my host aunt who lives nearby. 

I missed most of the excitement at the camp, only arriving Saturday evening when the camp concluded early Sunday afternoon, but it was still very nice to catch up with friends and to be a part of the camp. 

In the KL Sentral mall adjacent to the train station, from where we Perak AFSers took a train together to get home.

Photos from a walk around my neighborhood

Above: offerings before each meal

As sad as the death of a beloved friend, brother, son, and uncle was, experiencing the funeral was nothing short of fascinating. Seeing the intense grief of people after the uncle’s death was really upsetting, but it also made the experience more real and more personal, and I was very empathetic. I had only met my host uncle, known as Mama (a Tamil term for uncle), once, so it  was enough that I could feel the pain and loss of the family but I did not know him well enough to have as much grief as the other family members and friends. 
I was disappointed to miss half of the camp I had looked forward to for months, but I knew that seeing and experiencing and being a part of these rituals was an experience that is much more meaningful and memorable than an extra day-and-a-half with friends. 

The family was particularly upset because Mama was their only brother, and since their parents both already passed away, only the six sisters are left. Because Mama was not married and did not have any children, the Palaniandy name has come to an end. (This is significant in all cultures, but it seems especially important in Indian culture)

Fortunately, I haven’t had much experience with funerals in the US, but from my understanding, Christian and Jewish funerals are far less elaborate, though some similarities are shared. 

For the next sixteen days (but our family opted to do thirty) the entire family stays vegetarian (which for Indians also means no egg.) Before each meal, a meal was placed on the shrine as an offering to the deceased person, and the family sang prayers for around fifteen minutes. The food then could be eaten by family members.  Also in these sixteen days, we could not cut our fingernails or shave. For thirty days, the family cannot pray at home or go to the temple. We also could not buy or wear new clothes for thirty days.  The family will not celebrate any holidays for an entire year. 

That’s all for now! 

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. saraleewolf says:

    Hannah,

    I am speechless. How you described the funeral proceedings Week 19 reminded me again of just how rich and all encompassing this stay is for you. From my vantage point it has to be life changing. You are so observant with a penchant for description and detail. You invite the reader to “know” where you are. Are you planning to officially document the year other than the blog…definitely worth binding. Thanks so much for sharing your life. I hope that you are well and feeling a part of family. I think of you often and marvel at your growth and outlook. I’m curious to know if your family(there) and teachers think about what is going on in the Us politically.

    Take care of yourself.

    Love, Saralee >

    Like

    1. Thank you so much! Your support and encouragement mean so much to me— I really appreciate it! I know I will come up with a lot of scholarship/ college application essays out of this, but no other writing plans yet. I have been keeping a journal for myself about what I have done every single day, though! Thank you again for all your love!
      Also, I’ve found a surprising number of people who say they like Trump (well, three or four, but that’s enough to surprise me) but generally people are either oblivious and don’t know much about US politics, or aren’t happy.
      Thanks again for everything!
      Lots of love,
      Hannah

      Like

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