Funeral thoughts


We put small white flowers into the coffin. I feel the room darken. Stoic aunties start sobbing. Two men in sarongs and high collared shirts appear and lift up the side flaps. The lid is shuffled out from near the toilet. Its ornamental screws are quickly tightened to soft crying in the background. Final punctuations to an eventful, exuberant, generous and much loved life.

At that moment I vividly remember aunty’s delightfully nutty textured chocolate sweets. Love and joy their not so secret ingredients. Turning them into powerful expressions of uninhibited, spontaneous generosity. I doubt I’ll meet such a spirit again.

Amidst the grip of sorrow: blunt questions and answers about death. In innocent definitive 5 year old voices. Truths most adults try very hard to avoid.

I am one of the family men listed as pallbearers in her detailed last wishes. We wiggle through the throng to take hold of the tasseled handles. My first time carrying a coffin. Unless life dictates otherwise, I know that it won’t be my last.

It’s a tight squeeze out the front door. Which saw the traffic to many rituals of Sri Lankan life. Alms givings, family reunions, birthday parties. New year festivities complete with games. Countless casual drop ins by a cast of hundreds. Kids departures; for life defining exams, tuition classes of all sorts and universities abroad. Their returns and the start of working lives. The appearances of fiancées. Engagement ceremonies. Then the arrival of newly hatched grand children. A thankfully few family crises. Perhaps a row or two that I’m not privy to.

We are leaving a living room filled with happy memories. In the previous two days, something somber. The vibrant heart of the house laid out in a coffin. Muted sari. White socked feet. Skin darkened by embalming. Eyes closed. Hair pulled fiercely back. Hands clasped in the usual way. The conclusion of a long medical argument with biology.

Amazing how you get used to a body in middle of the house. Until this moment life flowed as normal around it. Aunties fussing about. Issuing contradictory instructions to us lesser beings. Then minor panics and arguments over the confusion.

Friends, strangers and the vaguely familiar stream in. All in some sort white and drab kit. They worship the body. Then stand serious faced looking at it with hands clasped over their privates. Tears are rare. We supposedly had time to prepare for this.

After the formal condolences, chit chat. On white clothed chairs under the metal roofed awning on the garden. Nescafé in paper cups flow from the machine in the kitchen. I’m called to fix the thing when it gets stuck. Usually a case of more water or more powder.

Reality of this death sinks in as we take her out for the last time. I am cooking in a tie for the second time this year. Black formal shoes crush my feet. Everyone seems lost and chaotic in the sun. Now I know why a funeral needs a director. I feel I am trapped in an unpleasent dream.

We slide the coffin into the hearse. A Volvo designed for sedate speeds. It is a slow crawl to the crematorium. Mrs C fields questions from our five year old about how bodies are burnt. There is much relief that the body wasn’t lit up inside the house.

My first time inside the Borelle Kanatte. We lug the coffin up the crematorium steps. Amidst the stream of instructions I can’t help but wonder which one they used for Rohana Wijayweera – if he was killed that way.

The coffin is put on a metal framed trolley. Which is rolled through grey doors. Another wave of tears. Then we circle the structure. Maroon t-shirted staff mill about. Another body is burnt next door. Handkerchiefs are tied on the heads of two nephews. They go in and out what feels like seconds. I hear the burn will take hours.

Then it’s our turn to face the crowd. A long line of mostly elderly faces. Sticky two cheek exchanges with unknown aunties. The whole spectrum of handshake grips from the uncles I’ve never met. I develop a new appreciation for the simple Ayubowan gesture and hand soap.

It’s time to go back. The Mala Batha awaits. Roll up the sleeves. Undo the tie. Peel off foot binding shoes with a sigh. The effects of two nearly sleepless nights kick in.

My parent’s generation is going. They have been leaving for a while. This the first leaves of that autumn to fall from closer branches of the family tree. For expat relatives: hastily booked tickets and over extended leave. Less than a decade ago the mid night air port runs were for weddings and engagements. I sense that in the next decade it will be the drum beat of sick parents and funerals.

Hopefully beyond that something happy. Perhaps the weddings of the noisy brats now screaming through the house. While adults organise the alms giving and bana preaching.

Both my parents are matter a fact about life’s only guarantee. A while back my father gave me a sealed envelope marked Last will and testament” in block letters. “Because we are in the departure lounge of life” he said. He briefed me about the procedures. Where to find the keys to this or that cupboard with certain documents and all that. His side of the family gets rid of bodies fast with less ceremony than the Mafia.

Looking back at this funeral, I feel their attitude is misguided. Even shameful. Funerals are not superficial by default. They celebrate a life in the way the attendees feel about the deceased. It comes out in a myriad of small meaningful actions. The whole process of being involved in a funeral (how ever peripherally) has driven that home to me.

A death underscores the fact that life does go on. I knew Aunty only for a short while. Yet her absence is already deafening. I keep thinking of Uncle who will come home each night to an empty house filled with memories. Dine in silence at a table that saw vibrant conversation and laughter. Knowing full well that there is nothing I can do or say to make things any better. Or is there ?

He is a stoic man with a busy professional life and a vast support network. Many think he can whether this change better than most. He knew what was coming in the past few years. None of that makes the process of moving on easy. According to a relative with a similar experience, “the first year is hard”.

At this funeral I decided to leave my carcass to science. Assuming they accept excrement. Yes, an abrupt change in topic for a last paragraph. End of a life tends to feel that way.

4 comments

  1. I slept on the floor of the living room where my fathers body was kept. It was not unpleasant or frightening, but quite redundant in a way. He was not there, a whole universe had just been extinguished. But we observe the formalities because it is a way of coping.

    Before the cremation many of his friends here came to say farewell, they made speeches, told stories of antics when they were younger. It was all quite impromptu and wonderful.

    But it is sad that most of those people had not seen in him years.

    Yes, funerals are for the living to cope with the loss of someone they loved.

    But a lot of the time, especially in the case of older people, it seems a whole lot of energy, effort and ceremony is spent upon their deaths, but hardly any of the attendees would have made the effort to see them when they were alive.

    Right now, there is an old lady in hospital – there is nothing that can be done, terminal cancer and she’s 80+.
    But for as long as I’ve known her, she has been considered a burden by her many children and shuttled back and forth between their houses according to their whims and guilt.

    When she was initially sick, hardly any effort was made to make her comfortable or her life a little easier. And now, as she is lying in hospital, hardly anyone visits – it is rare for kids to have great-grand parents and yet those kids are not given the opportunity to visit her in her final days because of their parents busy lives.

    When she dies, in a few weeks time, they will all come, resplendent in the white outfits and inflated cars. And I don’t know why, to pay their respects, when they didn’t have any when she was alive?

    I agree with the necessity of funerals for the grieving, but I think it is far more important to go out of one’s way, to inconvenience yourself a little and spend some time with the people you love when they are alive.

    It is an interesting point about ex-pats, and it is something I wanted to avoid, coming home to just to bury the parents. I think this is not a new phenomenon and it is something younger generations will have to deal with.

    But once that strongest tie is cut and you are finally set adrift, free at last, anchor-less and rudderless in to the never-quite-there/never-quite-here life of the settled immigrant (not as much of an oxymoron as it seems), I suppose the only blessing is that your children will hopefully will not have to do the same, having settled over there.

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  2. Indeed. In psychological terms the rituals of mourning play an important role in channeling and dissipating the emotions that flood the system after the loss of a loved one. A familiar rubric will bring comfort. Providing comforting rituals is the most fundamental role played by religion and probably one of the reasons why they still persist today.

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