Tales from the desi funerals

I grew up on a staple diet of Hollywood fares and have seen films like Four Wedding and a Funeral and Wedding Crashers, both of which projected funerals as perfect places to score with women. Unlike those romcom golds, our desi funerals are generally segregated and do not provide much room for romance to blossom – though some smart people do beat the odds and bond over the sad demise of a mutual acquaintance. Though they may not provide fertile grounds for romance, our desi funerals remain a fascinating place to see every stereotype unfold right before one’s eyes, be it the loud uncle, the religious nut job, the customary fundo khala, the modern visionary, the compulsive hugger, the prolific mourner, the head shaker and last but definitely not the least, the somber sage who will dish out advice on everything – from the quality of kaffan material to post burial rituals to reading out the deceased’s will and the phone number of a lawyer in case you want to contest the will of the deceased. Yes, the funerals provide an interesting peek into what our society has become and where it is going.

I ended up attending a couple of funerals recently and was struck dumb by the numbers of rishta-seeking aunties. These aunties are on the prowl for a girl for their sons, brothers, nephews and other boys of their acquaintances and will check out every single girl at the funeral, followed by an interview that can rival the Spanish Inquisition. Take this one rishta auntie at this particular funeral. Between asking questions about the girl’s education, her future aspirations, the number of siblings she had (I have been told that boys with prospects prefer small families for in-laws so that they can get the bigger share in the inheritance when the in-laws hit the bucket) and daddy’s financial status – gauged by careful questioning about his latest posting and the exact nature of his work – the rishta aunty went on and on about her health and her hemoglobin level. The poor girl who was fielding her questions – the girl could not have been more than 20 years old – was about to lose it when I sent in my sister to distract the rishta aunty. Hemoglobin? I mean, seriously? What’s next?

At every funeral you will also encounter a relative who will force his or her version of piety onto the rest of the family. If it’s a woman, chances are she’s from the Al Huda school of thought. You’ll know when she starts listing the bidaah or bad habits that good Muslims should shun. The bidaah could range from feeding the guests (duh!) to attending the funeral with a French manicure (OMG!) to plain old crying because as a good Muslim, you are not supposed to be overwhelmed by grief. Lesley Gore probably had these people in mind when she wrote her famous song “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to…”

In addition to the Al Huda brigade, you have people who are hooked onto tales of weird funerals. Not only that, they want to corroborate their tales with elaborately fabricated occurrences that belong to the Tlism-e-Hoshruba. They will mention how the dead body weighs a ton (implying that the deceased was an incurable sinner), or how the corpse was emanating light (because the dearly departed was an exceedingly pious person) or how the grave smelling of roses and jasmine (which means that the dead person will have a 5,000-sq-ft mansion in heaven).

Funerals bring in their wake a lot of hugging and weird body contact – an uncle is petting your head while your mom’s aunt is holding onto your knees as a way of offering love and support, even as a distant cousin is trying a peculiar side hug – which makes a person who values personal space extremely uncomfortable. Surely people can wait their turn and offer condolences in a more restrained and orderly manner.

Then there are the chatterers. Despite the fact that they are here to attend a funeral, they will talk incessantly about everything which is not suitable for a funeral, and they will do this while they are supposed to be reciting ayats on fruit seeds. At the last funeral I attended, the chatterers were talking about Yash Chopra’s death and what it means for the future of sari-clad Bollywood heroines and the men who serenade them in the Swiss Alps; about Adele’s new-born baby boy and how she duped everyone into feeling sorry for her and her cheater of an ex while she found love with another man and was in the family way; and the implications of the Asghar Khan case’s verdict on the status of the Pakistani army.

Given how funerals are turning into multi-day affairs, a family member who has an event management business now wants to break into funeral arrangements. Planning weddings and doing corporate events is passe; the manager now plans to offer designer “life celebrations” and commemorative life-bio videos for his clients who want to leave for their eternal abode in style and add flavor to their own final farewell. This sounds like a great business model – relying only on the infallible logic that as long as people are being born, some of them will continue to die – and is bound to ensure a continuous supply of clients.

And you can never accuse the event manager of cultural insensitivity: he plans on offering services of professional mourners – not like old-school professional mourners who would bawl and do maatam and stuff – but something contemporary that has a family feel to it. (There can be aunties who will pose as family members and cry when prompted; bouncers who will be under cover as distant cousins and can be assigned the task of keeping the overtly pious in check; and groups of presentable youngsters who will recite Surah Fateha and the Quran for the deceased without looking like madrassa kids.)

Some people think funeral planning may not reach the greatness that the wedding industry has achieved in Pakistan because of the sacred element attached to funerals (and not weddings, evidently). I personally think that the easiest way to sell anything in this country is to add a touch of religion to it – be it Shariah-compliant banking or schools with a special focus on religious teachings. After all we are a country whose biggest chunk of travel expenses is spent on Hajj and Umrah. We are also the country that offers the opportunity to perform a 5-star Hajj with celebrities like Amir Liaquat Hussainn and Maulana Tariq Jameel (his market shot through the roof after his latest Hajj photo op with Bollywood star Amir Khan and famous cricketer Shahid Afridi).

We have seen the wedding industry going places by playing to people’s quest for individuality here in Pakistan. Now the funeral industry is poised for attaining greatness – and making some serious money – by making people realize that they can dictate the turn of events even after they are dead and cold. 

Originally written for The Friday Times 
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1 Comment

  • Funerals show that we all belong to the same species.

    So, here in France, after the religious or non-religious service and the burial ceremony, the meeting for food can be quite raucous.

    Can’t help thinking that is so because everybody attending is secretely elated to be alive and kicking and and not looking at the roots of some vegetables or other plants.

    Georg

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