Death Rituals and COVID-19

While the second wave of the virus continues to wreak havoc across the country in terms of both new infections and deaths, it has put a hold on rituals, particularly death rituals and funerary rites. Certainly, a virus of this magnitude requires us to suspend social life in order to stop the infection from spreading, but what does not being able to perform funerary rituals for our loved one dying of COVID-19 mean? There are reports coming in from across the country of overburdened crematoriums and graveyards and the immediate family members of the deceased having to deal with their loved one’s death all alone.

What would have been a social occasion in non-Covid times gets turned into an isolated one because of the nature of this infection – no relatives, no neighbours can come to console the bereaved family and make their presence felt. All this certainly has an important role in our social lives. Perhaps the act of grief itself becomes more bearable when it is shared and it is for this reason when, for instance, food may not be cooked in the family of deceased and it is always arranged for by the neighbours or members of the extended family. The day of death could be difficult in itself, and where would one find an occasion to cook for themselves? It is in these times that the ‘social’ nature of our being comes to fore.

A very dear childhood friend’s mother passed away of COVID-19 following a brief admission in a hospital. Aunty, as I had known her all my life, was one of kindest women I had ever come across. The police ensured, after her death, that she was directly taken to the crematorium with only her husband and son in attendance while the daughters were still travelling. She could not even be taken to her beloved home, which she built with so much love and affection, where she saw her daughters grow up and leave for their marital homes, to come later with their children during vacations. She could not be given a ritual bath, and not even be prepared as per the customs for her final journey. Being able to do all this gives family members and loved ones some comfort psychologically that they bid their loved one a farewell she deserved.

But Covid has suspended all these rituals and it perhaps means that loss of a loved one is coupled with many other symbolic losses. Worst, there are news reports that some of those (bodies) who died are not even being claimed by family members for the fear of further infection.

These are truly difficult times.

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When I conversed with my friend through message (he is still busy taking care of his father, who also tested positive), one response stuck out for how it pointed out the fact that death, as much as other rituals, is social in nature. He said, “Hum hi rote hai aur hum hi aansoon ponchte hain (we only cry and we only wipe our tears)”.

There was something that was left unsaid here – that it is the community of relatives, friends and neighbours who come during these times to console the bereaved family. Death thus comes to be understood as a shared moral sentiment. It is essentially this sense of a shared sentiment that has been ruptured because of the ongoing crisis.

The death rituals also offer “an aura of factuality”, in the words of noted anthropologist Cliffird Geertz. The family gets together around and relatives – often the more experienced ones – help perform the prescribed rituals. The body of the deceased is given the ritual bath and prepared for the final journey as per local customs. There are material accompaniments like the leaf of the Tulsi or water from the Ganges, the headgear as may be common in the area, ornaments – all of which become part of the deceased person’s final journey. There are prayers by everyone who attends the funeral, they offer wood/earth as per their religion, console the family members and be around them during that difficult time immediately after someone passes away.

COVID-19 has meant that none of these could be followed. I wonder what affect it would have on the loved ones left behind – how will they reconcile to the fact of death without the social rituals associated with it. Its long term consequences will only be seen with time.

Vinay Suhalka is a researcher working on disability issues with a deep interest in trees and culture.

Featured image credit: Reuters/Arko Datta