Mourning Rituals

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Two weeks ago, it felt like every time I opened my computer, I received news of another death. One of these was my paternal grandmother, my last grandparent.

I didn’t know her well. I grew up in the States, and she lived in India, so every few years when I was a child, I’d spend a few weeks in her company.

My strongest memory is of the beautiful rugs she’d make. She made a small one for me  (mostly pink because that was my favorite color), and my parents have a gorgeous, large rug with two bright parrots against a colorful background. She taught me how to make these when I was 11. She took a piece of burlap, sketched a basic flower on it, and showed me how to pull yarn through with a special needle (much finer than the rug hooks you find in craft kits).

All cultures have their own rituals of mourning, and in the days after her death, my parents tried to figure out which to follow. In India, every region and culture has unique traditions, and there’s variation within. They wanted to honor and respect her appropriately, and when it comes to mourning, uncertainty is unnerving.

They were supposed to eat vegetarian food for a certain number of days — depending on the relation, sometimes this is four days, in other cases this lasts for 13 days. The word “vegetarian” was under debate, too. In some instances, onions are considered to be non-veg because, like meat, they “warm the blood.” One particular kind of lentil was deemed unacceptable for the same reason, although the others were okay. In addition to dietary restrictions, mourning traditionally means not attending celebratory rituals, such as weddings, for a year. Today most priests only require the 13 days. But does the shorter period diminish the mourning or focus it? What does it mean to be reasonable about mourning and the surrounding rituals?

At the end of the 13 days, my parents were supposed to resume their normal diet and mark the end of  mourning with a meal comprising my grandmother’s favorite foods. Of all the rituals, I appreciated this one the most as an affirmation of life after a period of  mourning — a celebration of the person who passed away.

 

If I Could Mourn Like A Mourning Dove

It is what recurs that we believe,
your face not at one moment looking
sideways up at me anguished or

elate, but the old words welling up by
gravity rearranged:
two weeks before you died in

pain worn out, after my usual casual sign-off
with All my love, your simple
solemn My love to you, Frank.

– Frank Bidart, 1997

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