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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 37, New Delhi, August 29, 2020

No Weddings And A Funeral | John Dayal

Friday 28 August 2020, by John Dayal

I lost my eldest surviving sister in law in July, to cancer. Amni Soshamma Thekkeveetil, the 83 year old widow of the late Kadavil Thomas of Thiruvalla, was the second of six sisuters and two brothers, was 83. The eldest brother and sister passed away some years ago. My wife is the second last sibling. Amni’s siblings and children are in several states in India, and several countries across the globe.

Covid made her last days so lonely, in ICU in a Kerala hospital and at home as they shuttled her several times between the two in the last few weeks . None of us will be able to be at her funeral. Not even a sister trapped in the forest district of Wayanad. Her local block is quarantined.

The emotional stress of Covid, the need to internalize deep grief, the cold holding of hands on Internet, gives no solace. Many try adopt a clinical ‘normal’ conversational tone in speaking to the bereaved family to keep emotions from bursting. No one knows how to cry or sob on the mobile phone, not even on Facetime or WhatsApp. Human emotions, sensitivities, grief are very private though culture, sometimes, as in some northern states, has institutionalised very public grief, including breast-beating, to formalise closure. We do not know if this is the best thing to do. Once upon a time, there were professional mourners to do the job. Even in London, as Charles Dickens reminds often in his novels.

In recent years, since the invention of low cost small drones that carry small video cameras, the skills of the photography of the big fat Indian wedding and some of its expenses were transferred effortlessly to the filming of funerals, specially Christian funerals in southern states such as Kerala, where they quickly became a status symbol in a very morbid way. Most of us would have, hidden somewhere in a cabinet, a video or CD, or thumb drive of the last journey of a long gone loved one, or one a trifle removed.

But the funereal embarrassment of years past has become a much desired connect with the can in a moment of deep loss, made the worse for the ban on travel, and the lockdown of villages, towns and metropolitan cities. Distance does make the heart yearn stronger. In by case, the funeral next morning in the elaborate Suriyani liturgy, was telecast most professionally over YouTube by the local expert. It cost money, but the extended family in far flung parts of the world could be present. It was a sombre experience, nut barring the Eucharist, one could participate in the prayer, and hope with the children of meeting the loved one once again at the Resurrection.

Not everyone is so lucky as the family of Amni. Covid has gone deep into the psyche, evoking very primitive fears. There are all too many reports from too many places and encompassing all religions and ideologies to show that not just neighbours, but even the children of the deceased and children, refused to participate in the funeral, which was ultimately left to the police or municipal officials. It was a hark back to the Dark Ages, the time of the Great Plague in Europe, or the man made war time famine in east India a few years before independence. The victims – if one can call a dead person a continuing victim – were not just poor, or ignorant. A well-known doctor who died of Covid was all but refused a Christian burial. In New Delhi, priests could not be found for anther body.

Every human being is guaranteed dignity n life. This dignity extends to the body after death. A decent burial or cremation, depending on the religion, wishes of survivors or circumstances in the situation, is a birth right, so to say.

Civil society was aghast at such reports. Medical doctors’ scientists, writers got together to remind people of their humanity, and the need to show it at such a critical time. An Open Letter and Appeal signed by many, including this writer, said “in the midst of the pandemic we are witness to the immense silent tragedy of loved ones not being able to say goodbye to those they have lost. For families battling infection and death of loved ones, this is one kind of suffering which is unnecessary, which should not have to further burden bereaved families. The ability to give a dignified farewell to our loved ones is often the starting point in coming to terms with uncountable loss. The process of grieving begins with this important ritualized moment.”

“As we progress through the pandemic, science and scientific understanding will often ask us to do difficult things such as practice physical distancing and wear masks. But a proper and complete understanding of the disease and dynamics is needed along with a strong public campaign to improve our understanding of the disease. In these challenging times science must guide us in negotiating the difficult boundary between public and individual safety, misapprehension and stigma. There is no scientific reason whatsoever for the suffering of families and friends who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 to be aggravated by not being able to bid a dignified and loving farewell to the departed.” Signatories included Rajmohan Gandhi, Nayantara Sahgal, Romila Thapar, Sharmila Tagore, Mathew Varghese, Githa Hariharan, Dinesh Mohan, Harsh Mander and Apporvanad. I also signed the letter.

Covid has reminded us of our mortality. It has also challenged our humanity. While each one’s time is appointed, our humanity is within our power to cherish, and to express.

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