Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Indian Death Traditions

New York, 2 a.m., March 2009

Sometimes it's hard to think of concrete exmples of how my husband has changed my life beyond the obvious things like living together and developing a set of inside jokes. But last Friday, on the way home from a visitation, I found myself looking forward to a shower.

Bathing after a funeral or visitation is an Indian tradition that he must have introduced me to the first time we went to something like that together. It's a purification ritual, but for me, it's also comforting and provides a much-needed transition, since my emotions tend to be right on the surface after being around grief. Which is fine and natural, but not something I enjoy for extended periods.

To do it completely by the book, you'd bathe outside and wash your clothes separately. I settle for inside and in the laundry basket, followed by quiet conversation with my husband.

There are many other distinct Indian and Hindu traditions around death. Washing and preparing the body for burial is an honor performed by a close family member. The family observes a period of ritual impurty during which they cover religious icons and do not visit temples, go to see friends, or attend marriage ceremonies. Hindu rituals are performed at various intervals after the death according to family traditions. In my husband's family, it's 3 days after, 11 days after, and 31 days after the death. I think there's one more interval, too, but after that, the death is observed annually.

My father died a few years ago, in March, but we had a service for him over a year later on his birthday, June 22. The Father's Day onslaught has been getting to me more than usual this year, so I'm considering borrowing (and probably modifying) another tradition from my husband, and hoping that if I do, it will help.

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