Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Can't Stop Christmas from Coming: When a Family Death Put the Holiday Celebration on Hold, One Woman Still Experienced the Joy of Jesus' Birth

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Can't Stop Christmas from Coming: When a Family Death Put the Holiday Celebration on Hold, One Woman Still Experienced the Joy of Jesus' Birth

Article excerpt

Here in India, where I have lived for the past 23 years, people know how to make space for death. The old traditional Christian custom of spending two days on the wake and one for the funeral--though actually practiced by very few in the United States these days--seems but a glancing nod when compared to Indian observances.

For the bereaved family here, life simply comes to a halt for a minimum of 13 days. In the hours immediately following the death, all activity concerns the preparation of the body and the funeral arrangements. There are no undertakers in India. Female relatives bathe and anoint a woman's body; men do the same for a man. There are no coffins: a simple stretcher of bamboo and rope is constructed on the spot and the men of the family carry it to the cremation grounds on their shoulders.

Because of India's climate and the lack of embalming or storage facilities, the funeral occurs either on the day of the death itself or the next, at the absolute latest. Relatives must therefore spend hours in a frenzy of phone calls or trips to peoples' homes to give them the news in time for them to make it to the ceremonies.

For the first four days the family does not cook any food in the house and neighbors are expected to provide each meal in quantities vast enough to feed the scores of friends and relatives who will come from far and wide to offer their condolences, meaning that life stops in the neighbors' homes as well. People take the day off to rush to the market to buy enough provisions to be able to cook the required amounts. Because most houses are not large enough to accommodate all those who wish to pay their respects, furniture is removed from the living room and mats are laid on the floor for people to sit on. Mattresses and linens are borrowed from friends for the makeshift sleeping arrangements that must be provided, and neighbors offer the use of their homes for showers in the morning as water is always in short supply.

Different families follow different rituals for the 13-day mourning period, but in most the family remains in the home throughout, emerging only for urgent matters. A prayer service is held every evening, which all relatives and close friends attend. The 13th day signifies the end of the formal mourning, but for most families it does not actually end there.

My brother-in-law, Arun, died in a cycling accident last summer at age 53. In a kind of daze we moved through the ritual mourning period, grateful for the structure it provided to a world that suddenly seemed incomprehensible and meaningless. The vividness of his personality and the assurance of a presence we had taken as given for the foreseeable future--only 53!--made his death a bewildering, disorienting experience. It couldn't be true. And 13 days, we discovered, was nowhere enough time to deal with the grief, the confusion, and the new blank future we all faced.

It was then for the first time that I truly appreciated another Indian tradition--the one in which a bereaved family forgoes celebrating any festivals for an entire year after the person's death. We had done it as a matter of course when my father-in-law died, but because he was elderly and his death was a release (he had told us he wanted it to be celebrated with a brass band leading his funeral procession), we almost had to remind ourselves that we weren't celebrating as each festival rolled around that year.

After Arun's death, however, the will to rejoice was missing. It all seemed a bit ridiculous, a contrived show of emotion we were far from feeling. Lighting firecrackers at Diwali, throwing colors at Holi, baking birthday cakes, sending Valentines, ringing in the New Year--without Arun, what was the point?

But Christmas ... now that somehow seemed different.

In the small north Indian town where we live, Christmas is--for most people--just another day. Offices are open, the newspaper arrives, mail is delivered, traffic moves at the typical crazy pace. …

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