Warning: This work has been rated 18+.
Up until last week, death, for me, was a detached experience. I brushed upon the inevitable when I was 9 months old. By “brushed upon”, I didn’t mean I had a near death experience. I mean that I experienced loosing someone close to me. I was a baby with a still developing brain and I have no memories whatsoever about my youngest aunt’s passing. My parents have told me stories about the funeral but I would be going off topic if I mention them here right now. To be honest, when someone mentioned the passing of a person I knew, I would have this sort of detachment towards them. I don’t mean an emotional detachment. Rather, I mean that I would readily accept that they were gone from the world and there is no coming back. I was also very scared of the idea of the funerals that would be held in honor of them.
This time, with my grandmother’s one, I had firsthand experience with an actual funeral. Normally, I’m not one to be scared of dead bodies. For some reason, the thought of seeing my grandmother’s lifeless body filled me with fear. Even after learning of her death, I was in denial. Some part of me thought, “No, she isn’t dead yet. Maybe they got it wrong. Maybe she is unconscious.” This denial period went on until the actual cremation ceremony. It hit me when we all sat down to pray for her departed soul just before we were about to cremate her. Reality crashed on my head and I realized, “She really is gone.”
I never expected myself to be a mess when we were doing her final send off but I was all over the fucking place. When we were going to cremate her, I was in a confused stage where I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know where the fuck I was walking to. My mind was in a foggy state. After the cremation, when I had time to calm down, I finally could breathe. That was when I got over my fear of funeral ceremonies. As I watched my grandmother’s body getting cremated, it seemed that my fears were up in smoke as well. At that moment, I wasn’t so scared of the inevitable.
Even after the cremation, people talked of death. People talked of death so much that it suffocated me. At one point, I wanted to escape. I just wanted to get away from all of it. I wanted to breathe. Yet, one part of me thought, I really couldn’t escape death. I would be constantly reminded of it through my grandmother’s cremation ground or through the memorials built for three nameless family members and my great grandparents. It was then that I accepted it. Death was a part of life and it was inevitable.
During this time, I made an observation as to how people referred to my grandmother after she passed on. When she was living, she wasn’t detached from people’s conversations. By detached, I mean, people referred to her as one whole person. When she passed on, there was a disconnection about how she was referred to.
When talking about her as a person, she was a ‘she’ but when talking about her death, she was a ‘dead body’. It was as if she wasn’t a real person anymore. Technically she isn’t. Yet the way she was referred to bothered me so much.
Another thing I observed was that there were two different kinds of people. There were ones who were scared at the thought of encountering something eerie after the passing of my grandmother. Then, there were ones who couldn’t give a shit if they ran into my grandmother’s spirit. What I am about to recount is a very funny anecdote that occurred while I was there.
When my uncle brought back the ashes and whatever remains that were left to the house, the women who were helping around the house were scared. They consistently told stories of hearing things go bump in the middle of the night. The funniest thing was that even I – the biggest believer in all things ghostly and supernatural – didn’t experience any of this nor did I believe it. It really made me remember of the time when I touched skeletal remains of an unknown person and my cousin refused to be around me because she was convinced the ghost of the person would be following me around. I digress. In contrast to these ladies, there was a man who had to pass the cremation ground when he headed home. When the fire was still burning, he actually sat down and warmed himself from the harsh cold of the night. He even lit a cigarette while he was at it! “It would have been nice for me to meet her one last time and chat with her.” He’d told my father. The differences between these two things really made me laugh for ten minutes straight.
A tradition that would scare the shit out of modern day believers in ghost is the final dinner that is prepared for the dead. I had heard stories from people who had seen or heard the departed spirit eat the rice and egg that was left for them. These stories chilled me to the bone. Experiencing it firsthand built an aura of mystery and excited my belief in ghosts. When my aunt showed me the pot where the food was placed, I could clearly see the indentation on the rice that my grandmother (probably) made when she ate the food that was left out for her.
Maybe there are perfectly logical explanations for how the indentation happened, but my delusional-ghosts-do-exist ass would prefer to believe that she really did eat it because she hadn’t eaten anything on the day she passed away.
One thing I also learned while there was that no one cooked food at the house the dead person was placed. Instead, we had to eat our fill of lunch, breakfast and dinner from the helpful neighbors. I was able to see the beautiful cooperation between the people of the community that made up all of my paternal relatives. When actually helping out with keeping us company on the other hand, there had to be some monetary and non-monetary incentives.
This was a time of firsts for me. It was my firsthand experience of Chakma funerary culture. It was also the first time I flew lanterns. I learned that the community played a bigger role in carrying out such traditions. The most important ‘first’ for me was breaking all my fears of these traditions.
The day we celebrated the one week passing of my grandmother was the day I got some solid advice from a monk that will stick to me forever. What the monk said that the more we accept our death, the fearless we get. In a way, it seemed like advice for me. I took it to heart that I shouldn’t be denial of the inevitable. I should always remember that this lifetime I am living is expendable.
During this time, I had a painful reminder that my last remaining grandparent had passed on. The hole in my heart seems to widen every time I remember this. I never got the privilege of knowing my maternal grandparents whom I have heard so much of from my relatives and mother. Nor did I ever get the privilege of meeting my badass paternal grandfather. I have this guilt that I never even tried to know my grandmother when she was alive. I always judged her from the outside. Really, the more I am looking at this situation, the more I feel bad for not getting the time to know her. All I saw were her flaws but I never saw her merits too. I regret never seeing her as a person as a whole. She had her fair share of hardships and she had endured so much that she ended up being the person she was when she got to meet me.
Eventually, I guess, this pain and the guilt I am harboring now will ebb away. The hole in my heart that seems to grow larger the more I lose people I love will heal. Other people will take their place in my heart even if – in a way – the people I lost are irreplaceable.
What I learned in my one week of experiencing a funeral first hand was that it doesn’t always have to be somber. Before, I had this image that everyone was quiet. No one laughed nor joked around. Nor did they listen to music. My views changed from experiencing this. Funerals aren’t just a final sendoff. The emotions funerals equate to shouldn’t be negative emotions. Instead, funerals should be a celebration of life. It should be filled with positive emotions as well. It should be a time for learning. It should be a time for forgiveness. It should be a time filled with music and laughter. Because life isn’t just full of negative emotions. Life is a big mix of all sorts of emotions. When sending off a loved one for the final time, it should be a big box of different sorts of emotions.