Ididn’t come face-to-face with death while growing up too often, but living in a joint family, I always knew of the unspoken rule of only male relatives going to the shamshaan ghat (crematorium) when someone passed away. Like so many of those traditional rituals, one never got around to questioning it. Up until it was the time we had to make a decision when my father passed away, leaving behind no sons, only four daughters.
Should we let a male relative, however distant, light our father’s pyre? Or should we, our father’s own children, do it? It was an obvious albeit controversial choice. There was no question about it — it had to be us.
I struggle to understand people’s apprehension toward daughters performing the last rites of their parents. The act of seeing the last physical trace of your loved one engulfed in the fire is essential to get closure, to realise that we will never see them in the physical realm anymore.
If you try and look for reasons for this rather discriminatory practice, you’ll hear several conflicting theories. Inevitably you will hear of the Garuda Purana, which is one of the 18 Puranas that form the Hindu scripture known as Smriti. The Garuda Purana lays emphasis on the eldest son performing the last rites for his parents, and finds no mention of the role of daughters. However, it does not explicitly bar them from performing the rites either. Other reasons, more rooted in sexist thinking, range from women not being strong enough to bear the sight of a pyre, to their requirement at home to do the cleaning, washing, and cooking while the men are away at the crematorium. None of the reasons were convincing enough for us to not go ahead with our decision to cremate our father.
The Garuda Purana lays emphasis on the eldest son performing the last rites for his parents, and finds no mention of the role of daughters.
I remember the day at the hospital when my eldest sister went to the gathered family members who had assembled to pay their respects, and told them that we wanted to perform the last rites. Our elderly women relatives were supportive of our decision, and our eldest male cousin told us he wouldn’t oppose it. It came as a huge relief, because to be honest, a confrontation would’ve been the last thing we needed when we were grieving. And so it was. Our first time inside a shamshaan ghat.
We did everything that a son would have done. We categorically told the pandit that he must not hesitate in letting us know about the proper rites. In fact, in the days that followed, he came to our house daily to recite the Garuda Purana, and wherever there was a mention of “beta”, he started adding “beti”. Several people came to us after the cremation to tell us that they were proud of our decision and that in a constantly evolving world, doing away with archaic rites was the right step to take.
But that is the thing — when you perform the funeral rites for your last surviving parent, you are not thinking about setting an example for the world to follow, or of what society will say. People’s adulation or disdain is the last thing on your mind. When you lift the arthi (a pallet on which the body is placed) and find it lighter than you expected, all you think about is how frail and weak your once-robust father had become from the assault of Alzheimer’s. When you apply ghee to his lifeless body, you think about how this is the last time you will be touching your father. And when the pyre is finally lit, all you think about is how easy it is for a human body to be engulfed in fire. You perform the rites almost on auto-pilot, but with every action, there is a deep understanding of what has happened and of what lies ahead. It is cathartic in ways you are not able to process at that very moment.
And this catharsis must not be kept from the immediate women relatives of the deceased. When faced with death, it is the living that need to become our priority, we need to make sure they are given the space and time and milieu to grieve and get some semblance of closure. The reason why I emphasise closure is that when my mother passed away five years earlier, my father had performed her last rites. We didn’t go to the crematorium, and I am still trying to make sense of her absence.
In fact, nothing prepares you for your parents’ death.
Having done it for my father, however, made a lot of difference. But it was the first time women had performed the last rites in our family, but not everyone was happy. During the 13-day mourning period, there were whispers from people who did not approve of our decision. There was even a sarcastic post on Facebook by one of the family members: He said that our father’s aatma (soul) will definitely get shanti (peace) since his dear daughters had performed the last rites. The sniggering undercurrent of that comment did not escape me. Most of these dissenters were convinced that our father would not attain moksha simply because we lit his pyre.
But we didn’t let us bother us. In fact, it served as a reminder to what our parents had always taught us — that you balance out your paap-punya ledger in this lifetime, and there is no “judgement day. You must do good as often as you can and wish others well. Moksha will take care of itself.
I’m sure my father is proud. And right now I don’t need validation from relatives. Because that’s in no way going to help me cope.
In fact, nothing prepares you for your parents’ death. Nothing. But that doesn’t mean you must give up your right to say one last goodbye to them.