Death, a user’s manual

Minakshi Dewan’s exemplary book maps the changing ritual and material aspects of funerals in contemporary India. 

Published : May 16, 2024 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

Women preparing for funeral rites at a burial ground in Chandrayangutta, Hyderabad.

Women preparing for funeral rites at a burial ground in Chandrayangutta, Hyderabad. | Photo Credit: G. KRISHNASWAMY

In the novel Life: A User’s Manual (1978), the French writer Georges Perec describes the lives of residents in a Parisian apartment while simultaneously attempting to depict those lives in a painting being contemplated in the same book. Drawing the residents into the details of what might make the painting, the novel gently idles on matters of the living and the lived. Minakshi Dewan’s The Final Farewell could well be imagined as a companion piece to Perec’s novel, titled Death: A User’s Manual. Dewan’s book enters the conversation with the stillness of the newly dead and ventures into the ethical emergencies of funerary work and ritual practices.

The Final Farewell
Understanding the Last Rites & and Rituals of India’s Major Faiths
By Minakshi Dewan
Pages: 312

The work of receiving the newly dead in India’s major faiths so that the survivors and the practitioners of the funeral work can together live up to what they deem a “final farewell” involves both socially crushing encounters and momentous collaborations. These are stories that cannot be simply narrated as the death rituals of Parsis (Zoroastrians), Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in India; they have to be told first-hand, as is suitable for a user’s manual.

A first-hand telling

The death of a close relation in her family gave Dewan an opportunity for a first-hand telling, which she gradually built through research and writing. She uses the phrase “chief mourner” while describing her role in her father’s death rituals, marking herself as the senior sibling over her younger sister. The idiomatic phrase “chief mourner” is commonly used in the anthropology of Hindu death. It usually refers to, not without allusions to some degree of melancholic power that such a chieftainship might entail, an eligible male relative by blood or marriage who offers the deceased to the sacrificial fire.

Dewan’s narration carries this melancholic power of owning a dead relative and seeking the final farewell as an index of social change and of the changing ritual and material dimensions of funerals in contemporary India. She enacts this narration by occupying the various vantages of death as expressed in India’s major faiths. The book is written in the comforting tone of Indian English. The words “Antim Sanskar” (last rites) are left as is without italicisation, translation, or diacritics, as are “parai”, “gaana”, and “phul chukna”.

Dewan’s book is a work of exemplary empirical documentation and exposition, based as it is on numerous interviews and cross-genre connections between cinema, anthropology, scriptures, and her own astute observations. The research for this book started during her state of mourning and gathered pace during the second wave of COVID. Death anyway makes for untimeliness, and with the pandemic undergirding personal death time, we gain a book where the voice of death work often comes unbidden. This voice particularly acquires a grave lament in the book’s second half, where Dewan hoists it as a social paradox.

A picture of social change

Death is a social event marked by the careful funerary handling of the body of the dead by a whole host of designated social actors. Why, then, are the people who work with the dead also the most stigmatised and socially distanced? While such sentiments run across the major faiths described in the book, caste offers the most rigorous divisions of separation because of its rehearsed ease even in the changing social world. Thus, we get a picture of social change in the book within the realms of death and funeral work that is both mobilised and immobilised by the uncertainty of death and change.

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The opening chapter on “Antim Sanskar in Sikh Tradition” makes place for death’s centrality in life by quoting Nanak’s Gurbani, “Death is our written fate”. It then goes into a dialogic unravelling of how Sikhs must accept death by disciplining life in Guru Nanak’s ways. When the end comes, the scripture tells us not to weep over it overtly. If living is imbued with anand (joy), death must be bliss too. Excavating funerary norms from the rahitnamas (sets of guidelines that govern the behaviour of Sikhs), Dewan sweeps to the present by noting how Sikh cremation is different from Hindu cremation.

Dewan then turns to Islamic rites and rituals and repeats the cadence set in the first chapter, of a dialogic unravelling of the irreversible procedure of handling the dead from home to the public funeral. We note a virtual interlocution in the theologies of death. If Guru Nanak says that death is a written fate, here we learn that it occurs with God’s command and the timing is predetermined by Allah. The careful welcoming of death at home is followed by bathing, cleaning, and preparing of the body for a funeral, ending in a simple burial. Dewan’s interlocutor says about the post-burial “anguish of the grave” that “the problems of the dead are different from that of the living”. Yet, in the same pages, we see that the norms of the holy book come face to face with the practical concerns of paucity of land for graves.

This pressure of the contemporary is most magnified in the chapter on Parsis (Zoroastrians), who have to let their “towers of silence” give way to cremation. The theological strain on thinking about death continues between the inherited and the emergent. We learn here that there are seven paradises, but there is a “place of gloom” for those whose actions were “neither particularly good nor evil”. The next chapters on Christian and Hindu last rites concern themselves with questions about the conduct and techniques of death rituals.

What changes when women conduct the last rites amongst Hindus and Sikhs? Who are the technicians of death? Where do cremation workers and mortuary staff stand if death is part of a service economy? When is a funeral an expense, an expenditure, and a punishing social toll? If such is the volatility of the social cost of the dead, how does the emergent “professional funeral service in India” reconceptualise services and bespoke costs?

“Who are the technicians of death? Where do cremation workers and mortuary staff stand if death is part of a service economy? When is a funeral an expense, an expenditure, and a punishing social toll? ”

If that troubles and muddies our imagination of a good final farewell, how do we relate to “death tourism”, the changing modalities of burials and cremations, and the reconfigured ways of caste that mould the new into the older forms of segregation and stigma? Can songs and rapping caste on its knuckles be an answer, as the “casteless collectives” show through their thoughtful gaana and parai performances? Equally, can gendered mourning by rudaalis, mirasans, and oppari pull us into a territory of thought about loss and performance?

Also Read | Unearthing the story of the sand burials on the banks of the Ganga

The social aspect of death lives on how it fares with not just life as such but also the properness of that life. A whole host of people and life situations are marked out negatively, ranging from kinnars, widows, female infants, and the unclaimed dead. To this add the pandemic. Perhaps not surprisingly, as Dewan shows in her COVID chapter at the end of the book, both extraordinary forms of care and shocking abandonments come to the fore.

The Final Farewell is a splendid achievement on a subject that involves the delicate task of handling and processing bodies of the dead in an emergency of ethics involving a mix of kin and professionals, private and public, planetary and interpersonal. Dewan’s work carries a twofold sturdiness within the transience introduced by death, unravelling an internal world of death while retaining compelling differences between India’s major faiths. 

Ravi Nandan Singh is an Associate Professor, Department of Sociology at Shiv Nadar University.

Disclaimer: I was interviewed during the making of the book and have been cited by the author. My reading and review of the book must be approached with this acknowledgement.

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