“The embers were still hot when we got there, red hot. We had to put the water to cool it down. There was no one to help us. We had to put the embers out. Then we raked it together, and collected the ashes.” said Ajay Uncle, my Mama (mom’s brother), as he took a puff of his cigarette.
My Masi (mom’s sister) had passed away. Ajay Uncle had just come back from the crematorium and was recounting the happenings to my mother and me. As I was listening to him, I was reminded of another time when my boyfriend told me about his grandfather’s cremation-what happened, the different rituals he was made to do, how they almost made him shave his head, etc. That’s when I became aware of how I was always the spectator when it came to cremation rituals, counting on someone else’s account. And how that had a lot to do with me being a woman.
According to Hinduism, women are not allowed to be part of the cremation rites. The last time they see the body of the deceased is at home before the ritual bath, after which they stay at a distance. Only the male family members accompany the body to the cremation ground, typically led by the eldest son or father as the ‘karta’ or chief mourner. Once the body is taken out of the house, women don’t see it again.
This tradition is said to originate from the Garuda Purana, one of the 18 Puranas, which are ancient Hindu scriptures. Now apparently, the Garuda Purana, or any of the other religious texts for that matter, do not categorically forbid women from performing cremation rites. In earlier Vedic times, it was said that daughters could assume the role of the son under special circumstances. However, over the years, patriarchy did its thing. Women lost their right to be priests, or conduct any religious practices such as funeral rites.
As it stands today, this tradition is reserved solely for men. If the deceased doesn’t have a father or brother, other male relatives, however distant, are favoured to conduct the rituals even if there are closer female relatives around. Take my Masi, for instance-her husband was too distraught to sit through the havan (prayer meeting) for her condolence meet. So instead of asking one of her daughters to be the yajmaan (head of the havan proceedings), the family priest asked her nephew to do the honours, and my Masi didn’t even like him!
When this lady’s grandmother passed away a few years ago, she asked her mother why they were kept away from the cremation. “I was particularly close to my grandmother and I didn’t think that it was inappropriate for me, of all people, to not be there to see her for last time.”
If you ask people why women are not allowed to perform the last rites, they would rarely have a concrete reason apart from vague mumbling about traditions and parampara (rituals) and the way things ought to be done. But there have been various justifications that have been passed down over the years.
Firstly, the most powerful, non-negotiable reason of them all-the soul of the deceased will find that much-sought-after sweet nectar of moksha/mukti/liberation, only if a male family member, in most cases the son, performs the ceremony. If a daughter does it, “maa ko paap chadega” (your mother will be cursed), as this daughter was told by her dear relatives. So such superstitions are taken as given, no questions asked.
Why is that a problem? For starters, it is a socially acceptable form of gender discrimination, which undermines women’s roles in the cremation of their loved ones. According to the UN Gender Equality Index of 2014, India has one of the worst gender differentials in child mortality of any country, ranking 132 out of 148 nations. One of the biggest identified drivers of that problem is the preference for the male child that is built into our cultural ideology. The importance of son’s performing the last rites of parents only fuels this idea.
Secondly, one needs to consider the political economy at play. Rather than what impact you have on the moksha probability of the deceased, it is probably more closely linked with whether you are their heir or inheritor. Considering women were not allowed to own property earlier, it automatically ruled out their position in conducting the last rites. This leads to another related issue of the ‘paraya dhan’ complex-that daughters are not the real kin as they truly belong to the husband’s family-hence questioning their legitimacy in the ritual. But if this recent Bombay High Court ruling by Justice Mhatre is anything to go by, such archaic ideas about the role of daughters in their families is being severely questioned in today’s society.
2) Women Are Needed To Help At Home
The second common explanation for why women cannot attend cremation ceremonies is that they are needed elsewhere-to wash the home and clean the floors once the all-male cremation party has left with the deceased, and then keep food and tea ready for the men returning from the cremation ground.
That is probably how the labour was divided in the past-the men travel the distance and build the pyre, while the women stay back to take care of the home and kids. There is nothing inherently wrong with the division either-it provides various duties to different family members. But over time, it seems to have developed the stench of essentialism.
Yes, that is important work that needs to be done as well. But is there a need to turn it into a matter of duty, where women are made to believe this is the right thing to do or absolutely ‘the’ thing for them to do, rather than attend the last rites of their loved ones? Just on a practical level, in the cremations I have attended, I have seen a whole army of relatives and well-wishers sweep in to help with cleaning and providing an endless supply of tea and what not. So if some women of the family do want to attend the rites, this can totally be figured out with a little help from your neighbourhood aunties and uncles, no?
3) Sparing Women The Trauma
The third often-touted reason is that funerals are hard to watch for women. It is said that sometimes due to the heat, the body may cramp up, and needs to be beaten back down into the pyre using bamboo sticks. Women, it is said, have a delicate heart and cannot bear such sights of their loved ones. They are just ‘generally more sentimental’ when it comes to family, or not as emotionally strong as men, who are ‘naturally blessed to have the power to keep their emotions under control’. What’s worse, as per these Quora comments, they even run the risk of ‘acting in an uncontrollable manner’ and ‘jumping into the fire themselves in a fit of grief!’
Appreciate the concern. Not. Yes, women are considered more emotional, but that doesn’t mean we create paternalistic traditions that censor the world experiences for their viewing. This kind of stereotyping elides any idea of the individual difference of how women respond to death. As a result, women are actually even expected to be emotional about death. But I have seen many women who are emotional, and some who are not-stoic, straight faced, dead pan, doing what needs to be done. Heck, I have been both those women in the face of the death of my loved ones. Secondly, I have seen many men who have been much more emotional when faced with someone’s death – less ‘strong’, more ‘weak’, as some would say. Given that it is less culturally acceptable for them to cry, they keep it bottled up, which is a whole other kind of problematic.
But wait-matters get worse. It isn’t just that women run the risk of crying their hearts out at the funerals. There is also this matter of women’s tears, like their other bodily fluids, being impure, and hence, the need to keep them away. To this, I offer no comment.
A few comments from this wonderfully passionate blog post on the same topic:
“I am from Mauritius. i went to the crematorium and I was insulted by the Pandit in front of everyone because I attended the funeral of my grandmother. I think we should fight for our rights and remove this kind of injustice.”
“I was stopped forcefully even to enter the crematorium. So many close relatives were against it. Even women”
“I’m from Trinidad and last December I performed the last rites for my deceased mother. I remember my pundit being so immensely conflicted as he was a very “by the book” man, so allowing me to perform her final rites was basically unprecedented over here, and I would’ve been his first ever. He pleaded with the male relatives and when he met no success, on the day of the funeral he told me to wear something white, I’m going to perform it.”
It is difficult when people die. In the world, as we know it, we have developed coping mechanisms in the form of mourning rituals to deal with it. Every religion or culture has its own unique traditions, but they all serve the same purpose of coming to terms with death. In Hinduism, the purpose behind the mourning rituals are two-fold. First, it helps to aid the soul of the deceased in moving on through the cycle of reincarnation, and second, to aid the living in overcoming their loss and accepting the impermanence of life. As Dr Vasudha Narayanan, Professor of Religion at the University of Florida and head of the American Academy of Religion explains, “Rituals give us a way of cathartically dealing with our grief. Every one of the rituals within the Hindu ceremonies is a reality check to help us confront our grief, interact with it, accept it and keep going on–both in life and spiritually.”
Women are denied this experience on both counts. By not being allowed to be a part of that final send off on account of their gender, there is no regard for one’s actual connection with the deceased. Hence, they are not granted that sense of closure that comes with that physical act of cremation. The entire material process of setting the pyre on fire, collecting the ashes, taking the ride to find the spot to submerge the ashes-a lot of which we only ever see in the movies-is the last journey you take with whatever is left of your loved one. Instead, women are left in their homes, filled with regrets and memories, and no movement in time or space.
One could go meta and say these rituals themselves are meaningless – a distraction from really dealing with the loss, performed solely for the satisfaction of society. But they do form the last leg of your relationship with the physical manifestation of your loved one. So till they are the status quo, why not do them without gender biases?
All my grandparents have passed away. I didn’t go for the cremation of any, but I have seen my sisters, cousins and aunts go. My mom went for both her parents’ cremations and even did the last rites for her father. For my Masi, she asked my cousin sisters if they wanted to go, citing examples of another cousin sister who had gone for the previous family cremation. They refused, “She went because she felt like it. But we are happy following the tradition.”
Matters currently seem to be in a state of flux, as with so many feminist issues of our time. There are many who take such traditions as given and feel there is no place or need to question. But there is also an increasing number that is inspired to defy tradition and take their chance for one final goodbye. Pankaja Munde, the Maharashtra Minister for Women and Child Welfare, made headlines last year when she lit her father, Gopinath Munde’s pyre. It was touted as setting an important precedent that would give courage to women to perform such rituals without the burden of social pressures.
Let’s make it clear-it is not about making a feminist statement in the hour of death and snatching back our right to light the funeral pyre. But I believe it is important to reflect and contemplate on the biases at work. Start a dialogue with family members on affording women the choice to participate in the cremation rites, if they so wish to. Given the sensitivity of the issue, and how deeply ingrained the beliefs are, it might not be easy to rewrite such traditions. It will require a deliberate effort to have each other’s backs, and ignore the haters, of which there can be many.
I remember when my Masi’s havan was taking place after the cremation. At the start, the family priest tied that ceremonial red thread for all the male relatives present, but not for the women-not even for her daughters. It irked me, and I asked him, “Panditji, aap betiyon ke liye nahi baandoge?” (Panditji, won’t you tie it for the daughters?). Then he tied for them as well, like it was a consolation prize. I don’t know how much it mattered to them in the moment. They were so grief-stricken, even as one of the sisters gave me a grateful smile. But I believe such instances of inclusion can go a long way in the lived experiences of women mourning and gaining closure on the loss of their loved ones.
Here are a few more stories that I read about people who feel similarly like me.