A grave understanding

February 23, 2020

We may be wired differently, but our emotion remains the same

That year I had attended many funerals. I was twenty four years old and was still trying to wrap my head around the concepts of death and loss, and life beyond it. Despite being exposed to the conversation at a very young age, it remained an intense subject for someone otherwise blissfully occupied with all matters living.

It was a winter afternoon. Back in 2007, landline telephones were not all that obsolete and so it was through a call on that very set that we were informed of a death. I was unaware of the details. All I knew was we were supposed to be leaving for the funeral in the next half an hour. When we arrived at the house, we were rushed into a corridor swarming with women offering condolences to the family of the deceased. It was moving, like all funerals I suppose. Amidst the sorrow, I couldn’t help but notice a charming spread of family portraits on a wall in a large corridor. It looked like a collage of beautiful memories, of weddings and elaborate dinners and of newborn babies – very happy people with just very happy things going on in their lives. And then suddenly my eyes froze as I tried to absorb the images I had just seen. There were pictures of the dead – of the mayyat, of bodies of close family members wrapped in white shrouds. Scattered on a corner wall, these pictures were not as large or as beautiful as the portraits of happy – living – people I had seen earlier. It took a lot to process it. It was not brilliant, but fascinating. It intrigued me to an extent that I found myself lingering in that corner for some time before being called to mourn with the family members.

Soon the family would gather around the deceased, with the aged widow – the matriarch of the family – seated at the centre, calling all her sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters, to gather around the mayyat. It was time for a family portrait.

My biggest struggle since childhood has been my inability to control my facial expressions – not that that is wrong but perhaps, it tends to become a social embarrassment when those expressions become an absolutely factual reflection of all thoughts running wild in my head. This flat mirroring of my thoughts on my face, at times, isn’t very flattering to the observers. Had it not been for the sombre mood and the welled-up eyes, my face – as it frequently does – would have landed me in a lot of trouble. I struggled, but managed.

I often wonder about that funeral and the way they chose to remain connected to their loved ones, now dead. But what interested me the most was not how they wanted to keep the memory of the deceased alive, but how they wanted to immortalise the memory of their loved ones as dead. Because I had always been accustomed (or programmed?) to keeping the memory of the deceased alive as living breathing human beings, I found it particularly, and personally, conflicting.

Of close family members, who passed away when I was too young to remember, I had always been told of their last days, perhaps even what caused their deaths. I had always been told of traits that helped people remember them – their intelligence, accomplishments, their sadness or pain, or their humour and laughter. It helped me create a temporary, perhaps even false, image of the person, now dead, as someone with things relatable to my living experience.

Perhaps this is why I find it particularly difficult to see the dead – as if they are a thing, and some say they are – at funerals. I am told it helps bring closure to those grieving. Does it? I wonder without wanting to know the answer.

Our eldest brother was five or six years old when he died. At his funeral, my now-only brother, almost four years old then, insisted that my mother ask our eldest brother to wake up and play with him. My grieving mother tried to explain but he wouldn’t budge. He was shown the mayyat of our eldest brother and explained that he was no more – that he was now in heaven, Allah miyaan kay paas. I was not even born at the time. All I know of my eldest brother is through a recollection of stories and events as narrated by my family members. I once asked my (now eldest and only) brother if he remembered anything from the funeral. He said it was patchy – random images and emotions. But he remembers missing him terribly despite what he had been told.

All of that is human – to keep struggling with and exploring ways of dealing with the drama life throws at us. We may be wired differently and attached to different mechanisms of social and cultural constructs, but our emotion remains the same – that of being human. In the end, that is how we connect with one another.

A grave understanding: Emotions connecting human beings