Death: Mourning Rituals for Women

On this day, last year, the emotional tribute of daughter Mallika Sarabhai dancing in front of her late mother moistened the eyes of many. And yes, why not! What a better way than one’s own daughter performing the art form that Padamshree Mrinalini Sarabhai lived for. Together with brother, she bid adieu to her mother for her ‘eternal dance’ on 21 January, 2016. This image of Mallika Sarabhai lighting her mother’s pyre was so powerful and annoying (both at the same time) that it made me remember the case of Geeta Verma who was axed to death by her brother and nephew for fulfilling her mother’s last wish of lighting her pyre. Two contrasting repercussions for two different women who performed last rites of their parents in their own different ways. Lots of food for thought, you see.

As the days passed and eventually a year, I forgot about both incidents only to remember them the moment I was, if not opposed then not supported as well on entering the crematorium on my friend’s father’s death.

My fault: I am a woman.

I plead: Not guilty.

Leaving aside a few exceptions, resistance towards women participating in last rites of their loved ones is not new (check here, here, here, and here). A justification is thus needed on why women’s participation in the funeral traditions of their family members is frowned upon or is confined? Was the murder of daughter Geeta Verma for performing the last rites of her mother justified?

Not to my surprise, I found nothing logical behind it.

Though funeral traditions differ across cultures, I shall touch on certain common restrictions for women when it comes to their bereavement. Women can and sometimes have to:

  • show emotions towards the dead (expression of emotions differs across cultures)
  • sulk for the dead (mourning time also varies across cultures)
  • cook food, feed the relatives at the time of death, and
  • clean the home of the dead.

As if all other restrictions were not enough, it surprises me that society has so-called rules of mourning also for the women. To justify these restrictions, obviously there goes some solid reasoning behind them. The first reason I found was women are too emotional to visit the crematorium or graveyard and hence they are better off fulfilling the mourning rituals at home.

Another reason was that a son’s fulfilling the final duties opens the gates of heaven for parents or is auspicious for the parents’ soul. A reason also stated that since daughters are given away after marriage, therefore they are no more a part of their parents’ house and henceforth no participation in last ceremonies of the deceased are allowed. Also, their participation can mean that they still have some right in their deceased parents’ property, which now belongs to the ‘son(s)’ only. Seriously! Why do I find all such reasons ludicrously mocking me? Which world am I a part of?

Whether or not a wife, a daughter, a sister, a mother is able to deal with the pain of being part of the last rites of their loved ones should be the decision of that woman herself. How can it be generalized that women are not strong enough to take part in such duties? Whether a woman mourns for 10 days or for 40, at home or at funeral home, by sulking or by wailing, isn’t it for that woman to decide and act as per her wish? Some people dread getting an injection while some stay unaffected. Does that mean we should administer an injection only on those who maintain a poker face while getting one? Yes! the others are too weak to bear the pain. So no vaccine for them. Let them be ill.

Any person who has taken birth, will die. This truth is common but what happens after a person dies differs (and is also unproven) across cultures then how can it be said that only ‘son’ or the ‘male member’ will help reach the deceased its favourable destination. What about those who do not have sons or the many without children altogether? These daughters shouldered the bier and lit the pyre when their father died in Varanasi. Do we think he is not resting in peace?

The daughters definitely take on new roles after their marriage but that does not stop them from taking care of their parents or being a part of the family they were born in. Why can’t a daughter’s marriage be seen as an extension of her roles as wife and daughter-in law rather than elimination of her previous roles as a daughter, sister, etc. It is absurd to decide on or base the sharing of parental property by the level of participation in the last rites.

When my daughter was born, the pandit who visited my house told us that Sanskrit language does not differentiate between ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. Though Putri means girl child but Putra implied both the genders. I found a similar reference in this book also. So when sacred texts address Putra, it is meant for both, the girl child and the boy child. It is funny that our ancestors, in a way promoted gender equality and down the generations we have used it as a loophole to differentiate between the privileges of a man and woman.

I would like to believe in this ‘putra’ theory (till the time I find more written proofs). At least it puts an end to the whole man-woman differentiation. For those who turn to religious texts that only ‘sons’ are allowed to conduct last ceremonies and hence SONS are WANTED, I believe I have answered you.

Bidding the last goodbye to one’s loved one is an emotional moment. Isn’t it best for the sons, daughters, wives, mothers, fathers, brothers to decide for themselves and choose their level of involvement in the funeral ceremonies. Today when parents have stopped differentiating between genders while raising their children, then why society highlights such differences when the loved ones pass away. It is important that people understand that each and every tradition has a contextual meaning and these rituals must have also started due to some context but do we still need to follow them? When contexts change, the traditions must change, otherwise they become boundations.

0 thoughts on “Death: Mourning Rituals for Women

  • This is some food for thought. This practice of not letting girls participate in the funerals in our religion never bothered me. But your post has certainly put forward the questions that noone is asking. Food for thought, indeed!

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