Basic introduction to the process of a funeral in India. Rituals regarding funerals can vary slightly in different parts of India and within different castes of India, but they still remain largely similar.
Seetaram Yadav was not a rich man, but he was a respected man. He was an influential political leader until he touched the seventh decade of his life. He was forced to quit politics when politics became too malign to be practiced by honest people. Seetaram Yadav was a follower of Gandhi.
At the age of 91, he was seized by the bed of sickness. After three months of struggle, on a cold morning of January, old Seetaram finally took his walking stick and began his journey to heaven. He left three sons, their wives, and seven grand-children behind.
Kamal Yadav, the oldest son who took care of his father in his last days, began informing relatives and friends. The news of the demise of the famous man spread like fire in jungle. People began to gather at the house of Seetaram despite the foggy cold morning. Preparations for the funeral were initiated immediately.
In the Hindu custom, the body is taken to the cremation ground on a bier, known as Arthi. Arthi is typically assembled on-the-spot with logs of bamboo. After the body is placed on the bier, it is then covered with a particular kind of cloth, known as Kafan. Kafan is generally a piece of plain white cloth; however, kafan can be colourful and shiny in some parts of India. Seetaram’s Jaunpur city falls within the ‘colourful’ zone. In the regions around the city of Varanasi, the colourful kafans are donated by relatives, friends, and well-wishers of the deceased person. The amount of kafans on an arthi conveys the popularity of the deceased person. Seetaram’s arthi was thickly covered by kafans and flowers.
When the arthi of Seetaram was prepared, it was kept in the front-yard of his house for the final viewing. By ten o’clock, most of relatives and friends of Seetaram had arrived. In a corner of the front-yard, there was the place for the mourning women. Indian women cry plentifully at such events; however, it is uncertain if they are truly grieving or only pretending out of courtesy. Some people, sort of ‘experts’, also believe that Indian women cannot stop themselves from crying when they see other women crying, as it is part of their nature.
Some thoughtful people sat in a corner discussing the deep topic of life and death. There were also some people, who sat around a bonfire and shared their memories of Seetaram. Seetaram fought against the British Rule in his younger days, and later against religious hypocrisy and corruption. There were plenty of memories and stories to be shared.
Meanwhile, Kishan Yadav, the youngest son of Seetaram Yadav was on his flight to Jaunpur with his wife Meena. He was settled in Bombay. He was sad and upset at the moment. Sad over the death of his father and upset with his wife. His wife loved to flaunt her lavish lifestyle. And even at such an unhappy occasion, she was adorned in her costliest sari. She wore even some jewellery. For an Indian funeral, dressing up is not seen as a good gesture. One is expected to embrace plainest attire possible, especially the close relatives.
When the youngest son arrived, the last journey of Seetaram began.
An arthi is carried by the closed relatives on their shoulders, especially by sons and grandsons. The arthi is carried to the cremation ground with ‘Ram nam satya hai’ being chanted by the carriers repeatedly throughout the path. ‘Ram nam satya hai’ can be translated as ‘Ram’s (God’s) name is the truth’ or ‘True is the name of Ram (God)’. There are several translations and explanations for this slogan; however, most of people do not appear to care of any explanation, and just carry out the tradition. Sometimes drums and brass band are also part of the procession, when the departed one was very old and believed to have lived a good life. After a good life, their last journey should be not entirely grieving, it is believed.
Women are expected to stay at home while men carry out the cremation rituals at the cremation ground. Women carry out few traditions such as burring the clothes and bed sheets of the departed at home.
Dying in holy Banaras guarantees heaven. Cremation in Banaras also offers similar outcome. Therefore, Seetaram’s cremation was to be performed at the famous Manikarnika Ghat of Banaras, which was fifty kilometres away. So, carriers had to carry the arthi on foot only a couple hundreds of meters to the main road where a caravan of vehicles awaited to take the body to Banaras.
Funeral pyre, known as chita, was arranged at the busy Manikarnika Ghat. Seetaram Yadav was to begin his journey to heaven alone now. Chita or pyre is the last point until where family, relatives, and friends accompany you in your last journey. After this point, you travel alone. Alone, and above all worldly attachments.
The dom demanded unreasonable fees for the fire. Traditionally, the fire to ignite the pyre is obtained from a dom (one cannot just kindle a fire using matches). Being a dom was only a profession in ancient days, but later it became a caste, in the same fashion as other professions turned into family inheritance based castes (read more about Indian caste system). After some bargaining, finally the fire was obtained. And as custom commands, eldest son of the dead man ignited the pyre. Hours later there were only ashes left. Ashes were collected carefully and cast into the stream of holy river Ganga.
Casting the ashes in Ganga is believed to be a sacred act for the soul of the deceased. Many people who reside far from the holy river, bring the ashes of their late family member to Banaras, Haridwar, and other places that are blessed to have Ganga passing through.
After the funeral, house of the deceased is to be purified. Purified in spiritual sense. There are numerous religious rituals performed for this purpose. These rituals also help the soul of the departed to find peace. Different rituals are practised at difference places, although, essence remains the same.
“We should call Amritlal Pundit.” suggested Kishor Yadav, the second son of Seetaram. Amritlal Pundit was a local pundit who fulfilled all religious needs.
“What are you talking about!” retorted Kamal Yadav, “Our father opposed their hypocrisy in his entire life and you want to call one of those blood sucking pundits to help his soul find peace?”
Kamal Yadav, like his father, wasn’t much fond of conservative religious views.
“Bhai Saahab is right. We must do it in the way of Arya Samaj.” said Kishan Yadav, the youngest son. To which all brothers finally agreed and several conservative relatives groaned.
Arya Samaj movement was established in order to renovate Hinduism in 1875. This movement proposed several modifications in effort to get rid of harmful superstitions, bring human equality, et cetera. The movement endorses women empowerment and rejects religious hypocrisy. Arya Samaj pundits do not necessarily belong to the Brahmin caste.
On the thirteenth day of the funeral, it is the day of Terahvi. A feast is held on this day to pay reverence to the departed. This feast is as big as an Indian wedding feast. Sometimes even bigger. Today, this feast is often taken as an opportunity to show off the wealth and status. It seems to be also believed that bigger feast would obtain bigger peace for the soul of the late person. At least it appears so.
Seetaram Yadav was a popular person and a combined Terahvi feast was held by the three sons. Therefore, guests list was long and the feast was grand. More than a thousand people attended the feast. Seetaram’s soul must have been proud of his sons.
Family of the three sons of Seetaram spent next one year without celebrating any festival as it is the custom.