Conversation with Ganesh from India
Kasia - Would you be able to tell me a little bit about rituals and traditions cultivated in India, or in your region around death and dying? When we spoke a few months ago you said that a funeral celebration takes several good days.
Ganesh - Yes, it takes like 11, 13 or 15 days depending on who died. In Europe you have wakes, right? So, we have something like that as well. Everyone comes to show respect to the person that has passed away. Before that, the body is washed and wrapped up in a white cloth and kept in an open casket. Only the face is uncovered so everyone can see it for the last time. Most Hindu people burn the body because we believe that by burning the body, we set the soul free. Otherwise, it is still attached to the body. On the 11th day, there is a celebration during which the family gathers together to eat and there is a small puja (*praying celebration).
Kasia - If I remember well, in your region, the tradition says that the youngest son is responsible for preparing his mother's funeral.
Ganesh - Yes, the youngest son is involved in some rituals but he does not prepare the funeral. He just carries a bucket with water and walks around the body of his mother releasing the water from the bucket. I am the youngest son and I did it for my mother when she passed away. That’s why I know about this tradition. I also had to shave my hair. But to be honest, I don’t know why we do it. I never actually found out the reason behind this ritual. When you ask the elder, they’ll give you way too many theories behind it.
Kasia - How did it feel for you to be involved in this ritual?
Ganesh - How did it feel? It's difficult to say. Obviously, if I could have chosen, I would not have liked to be involved in it. But then suddenly being told that it is your responsibility made me feel weird. I don’t remember what I was thinking because it was the last time I saw my mother before she was cremated. On the other hand, I think that it made me happy, to some extent of course, that I could do something to pay her some kind of respect.
Kasia - Do you think that your cultural background and your religion has shaped the way you experienced your mother's death?
Ganesh - I am not sure about the religion. I've never been extremely religious although I do believe that there must be something bigger. But my ideological mind disagrees with idol worship of someone or something. In terms of the culture, I do believe that it definitely plays a big role in shaping your beliefs and who you are as a person. That is what separates us from everyone else. Right?
Kasia - So how would you explain how your culture shaped the way you have been grieving?
Ganesh - I don't really think culture has anything to do with how you would mourn. At the end of the day grief means emotions. I can't really say that my culture defines my emotions towards someone's death, my happiness or anything else. Maybe culture just defines how the whole process happens. Apart from that, I don't think it has any control over your emotions or their expression.
Kasia - In the western world men, who go through a crisis or something difficult such as death of someone they loved, don't talk about their emotions and difficulties that they are facing. Is it the same in India? Are men allowed to show their emotions and talk about them?
Ganesh - I think it's the same all over the world. I don't think it has anything to do with religion or country. When men express their feelings, people look at it as a sign of weakness. I don't believe in that. In my opinion, the stronger you are, the more capable you are of expressing your emotions. I also think that everyone can sympathise with you but not everyone can empathise with you. I feel that empathy only comes with strength.
Kasia - Was there anything in particular which made you feel better when your mom died?
Ganesh - I had seen her suffer for literally six or seven months. She couldn't eat any food and couldn’t drink water. That whole process of seeing her suffer for that period of time was more painful than the moment she passed away. Obviously the thought: ‘I am losing my mother’ scared me, but I felt some sort of relief to see that she is not suffering anymore.
Kasia - So I understand that to some extent, it was more difficult to see her deteriorate, than to see her die.
Ganesh - For sure. For three to four months, we believed occasionally that she may recover. She also believed that she would recover because there were a few signs that gave her hope. And then after she underwent an operation, the doctor informed us that her cancers literally spread all over, and there was nothing that could be done. That was even more painful and hurtful. We couldn’t tell her that…I couldn’t...I think it was the only period of time during which I wasn’t expressing my emotions because everyone at home, my grandmother or my mother’s sister, was crying and breaking down. If they had seen me cry, that would have crushed them even more. I cried on my own when I was in solitude but in front of them I was trying to hold back as much as I could.
Kasia - And do people in India talk openly about death and dying? Or is it a taboo topic? In my opinion, in Europe, we still pretend that we are immortal.
Ganesh - I wouldn't say it is a taboo topic. I was actually talking to someone the other day about the ideal death - while you are sleeping and don’t feel any pain. So we do talk about it. But India is of course much more spiritual. So many people say that it is better not to talk about your own death, because it may bring bad luck or bad omen.
Kasia - In Poland and some other countries in the world, there is a day called All Saints day, which is celebrated on 1st November, during which families visit their relatives' graves. Do you have something similar in India?
Ganesh - No. We don’t visit our relatives’ graves, because they don't have any bigger meaning to us. It's just because we burn the body, to set the soul free and scatter the ashes. After my mother’s cremation, we took her ashes to a point called Rameshwaram. It is where the Bay of Bengal meets with the Indian Ocean. It is where we scattered her ashes. Many people do it in a river as an act of separating the soul.
Kasia - How have things changed for you after your mother’s death?
Ganesh - I would say my relationship with some members of my family has changed. Especially with my grandmother, my mother’s mother who took over the role of my guardian. I also think that my emotional quotient has increased. I have developed much more understanding towards things such as happiness or sorrow. I have also learnt a lot about empathy and these things at the end have shaped me.
Kasia - I've heard a sentence which really made me rethink my life ‘Everyone has two lives and the second one starts, when you realise that you are mortal’.
Ganesh - We're all here to make a mark. I believe that our sole focus on this planet is to leave a mark on our friends and family.
Kasia - Did you realise it before or after your mother's death?
Ganesh - I think after.
Kasia - I imagine that many people after your mother’s death were trying to support you. Was there anything which made you angry, uncomfortable or disappointed in their attempt to console you?
Ganesh - There were obviously some things that irritated me such as people who were saying that I could call them whenever I needed anything and who disappeared that very moment. I also recall that I didn’t like when people were saying in a very negative manner things about death but I cannot remember what it was exactly.
Actually, we organised a small event, a couple of weeks after her death, during which my family and friends gathered together. We showed my mother’s pictures from her whole life and everyone who came over spoke about their experience with her and how she affected their life. That was very moving for me. I didn’t speak up that day because it was too emotional for me. I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling because it was all very new to me. Over a period of time, I understood what I should do and what I should not do to feel better. Now I know that chatting always helps.
Kasia - Was there anything else you did to commemorate your mother?
Ganesh - No. But I had a very close friend who passed away in an accident at a very young age. He was 21. He also affected my life in a very positive way. Every year, on his birthday, me and my friends visit his parents and take them out for dinner or cake. This is to show that he meant a lot to us. At the end, if he was still alive, we would be taking him out.