Movies. Funerals. I cry in every single one. Unbelievable but true, every single movie, even comedies of all kinds: rom-coms, teen-coms, stag-night coms. Hindi films have a particular trick of squeezing saltwater out of me, even while I’m laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of the melodrama.
At funerals it is more expected to shed a tear or two, but I tend to cry buckets. (I should have bought shares in Kleenex two decades ago.) After the crying is done I have the habit, following a funeral, to hone in on the amusing scenes and jot down chirpy notes. This is what led me to write my last-rites-comedy story, ‘When You Go, You Leave a Farce’.
Just to out myself as a total weirdo, I love attending funerals. Now that I’ve confessed to that, there’s a chance that my invitations will peter out, but what is writing if not packed with sacrifice? Plus, there’s always my funeral on the agenda. I can plan on enjoying that. I hope to emulate some of the best funerals I’ve been to, where the voice of the deceased person came through loud and clear. Their wishes, their beliefs, their contributions to the world they lived in and the fact that their loved ones respected their final desires.
A recent public funeral, of the steely (pun intended) Lady T, emphasised, if not her actual personality, the traits she wanted to portray, including her total control over her death rites. But I am thinking not of her, but of my friend Leigh. When the home-recording of him playing his own piano composition was aired, it felt like he was there, rising out of his casket, performing for us. I’m thinking of my neighbour Sally, whose largely fuss-free, religion-free, but extremely moving last rites were emblematic of her philosophy and the wide reach of people she championed.
Then there are the funerals where the rites seem to bear no relation to the person. This is not necessarily wrong. It is one of the important purposes of religion; to provide us with a template for births, sickness, death. It gives those left behind, sometimes clueless or uninstructed, traditions to fall back on, and cultural customs to show their respect and to satisfy their need to fulfil their duties. For me, this disconnect between the dead person and their final memorial service is sometimes where the comic element creeps in. Other times it’s in the actions of the mourners or the religious bodies conducting the mourning.
This disconnect occurs partly because so many of the religious traditions were absolutely right for the times when the strictures were laid down. Most religions seem not to have moved with the times, so whether something makes sense anymore or not, it’s still done the way it has always been done. Not very many people question the rules and try to find out why those rules are there in the first place. Meanwhile the priests, and I use the word loosely to mean all people who may conduct funeral ceremonies, have become modern themselves as have all the people attending these observances.
I have no quibble with this state of affairs (old-fashioned funerals) for several reasons:
- We live in an age where we can make our wishes known and ask for an amalgamation of religions and traditions, if we so wish, and the likelihood is that if we’re clear about our requests, they will be followed.
- The old ways provide a link to ancient rituals that are somehow in us through childhood osmosis. Mourning in a traditional way gives closure and gives space for grief to breathe.
- These rituals generally bring together family and friends, who can express their sorrow at the loss of a loved one and share memories as well as offer gestures of kindness and support, as required.
- If you die alone, a religious institution is likely to claim you and possibly give you a proper send-off, unless you’ve filled in ‘Jedi’ as your official religion or left it blank, or like me left it deliberately confusing with ‘multi-faith’. (I doubt that creeds will be fighting to claim me.)
- As many people have pointed out to me, once you’re dead it makes no odds whether you have a funeral and what sort it is, so why should it matter if those close to you decide to indulge in their idea of a service?
- For questioning souls, doing things the way they have always been done stokes curiosity about the last rites of all the different faiths.
Not to forget the amusement factor. For that’s where my story started, with notes I’d made after a few funerals. Like weddings, funerals have a prescribed mood. It’s when a guest goes off-script or lacks acting skills that things can take a comic turn. Many a feuding family come together at larger weddings and funerals. If one is an uninvolved observer, one just catches remarks as they fly past, and it is only later that a pattern is pieced together. Sometimes droll incidents occur when the adage about the best laid plans of mice and men holds true, and arrangements start to spiral out of control. One friend, who flew across the world to bury her mother’s ashes in the family grave, had to inter an empty urn—the ashes had been confiscated by customs in another continent. She had no choice but to find the humour in that. Another friend researched and booked a beautiful venue to strew roses on a river, also as part of the last rites for her mother, but her brothers got lost and went to another river.
‘When You Go, You Leave a Farce’ is fiction and in writing it I imagined, not a feuding family, but long-lost relatives and a bit of a culture-clash. Luckily no clashes exist in my family as we all belong to the ‘live and let live’ category. As I was writing this blog piece my husband suggested I title it ‘C’mon baby, light my pyre.’ Actually, I was thinking that two minutes of ‘Riders on the Storm’ could be part of the playlist of my funeral rave (no solemnity wanted).
Kavita Jindal’s story, ‘When You Go, You Leave a Farce’, will be published in September in the tenth edition of The Mechanics’ Institute Review.