We are in the house that was at the heart of Appa‘s childhood. The village house of his grandparents where he used to spend most of his long summer breaks. We are here to attend the funeral of his grandmother.
Five years ago our spring break trip to visit our family in southern India coincided with the sudden death of his grandmother. It was both sad and fortunate. She had a stroke the night we arrived. She was still conscious when Appa rushed to see her. She lost consciousness and passed away soon after.
We were thankful that Appa could be near and communicate with her one last time. We were grateful for being able to honor her throughout the period of rituals that follow a person’s death in the Hindu tradition.
Appa’s grandmother lived in her traditional farmhouse, a 15 minute drive away from the town of Appa’s parents. She lived alone but she was not alone. Her relatives and her neighbors visited her often and made sure she had everything she needed. Her community liked and respected her for the relatable person she was, and as the widow of the former head of the village.
I knew her to be warm and welcoming but I couldn’t help feeling intimidated when I met her during our first trip to India as a family a couple of years before. I remember this white-haired imposing old lady standing in my in-laws’ living room as we arrived from our day-long trip at the crack of dawn. I remember how astonished we were as then three-year-old Minette, who was meeting her great-grandmother for the first time, ran to embrace her without a second of hesitation. This may have been the most auspicious moment we ever lived together.
Now, a couple of years after, we were in her house for her funeral. It was hot outside but somewhat cooler inside thanks to a ceiling fan and good air circulation around the open roof central patio and throughout the house. We gathered there for hours a couple of times leading to the day of the final ceremony.
It was unlike any Western funeral I had attended before. The house was crowded. Most faces unknown to me. People were coming in and out. Most of the time they were chatting. Some had their cell phones on and ringing. It didn’t feel disrespectful at all. It was just a very different way of handling death — more natural, less rigid. Not severed from life.
Minette and her cousins were here. They were talking together animately during the long waiting times. I sometimes entertained them with stories. I remember how attentive Minette became when they finally brought her great-grandmother’s body covered with flowers from another room to the patio for the Hindu priest to say the last prayers and perform the last rituals before the body would be taken away and cremated. I remember my usually demure mother-in-law, seating next to her mother on the patio ground, crying and invoking her on and on.
A year ago my mother’s much younger sister died of cancer. Hers was an untimely death. She was just five years older than me, so more like my (only) cousin. She lived in a village too, the same she had grown up in. When we were children she was the one to lead our plays. She showed me how to turn corn ears into dolls — the corn silks had the same palette as hair colors: blond, red, and brown. She put together pop music shows we would perform for our family.
As adults we were not intimate. I think the main reason was that she was a private person who was reluctant to share her inner feelings. But I always enjoyed being around her. I liked her way of talking and her good-humored acknowledgement of the persons around her. She was warm without being effusive.
She was attuned to nature and its beauty. A gifted gardener. A keen hiker. An animal lover. A resourceful cook. Someone with a remarkable topographic memory and an eye for colors and shapes.
It took cancer a year and a half to overcome her after she was diagnosed. Treatment gave her some respite around the summer of 2021. We were fortunate to spend time together then, in what would be her last summer. We also came to see her on Christmas of 2021. It was clear by that time that she did not have much longer to live.
Throughout most of her illness she rarely wanted to see anyone else than her husband and their daughter. During her last few weeks she told her husband she did not want anyone to come, including their daughter and her sister, my mother. He said their daughter should be allowed to come but he otherwise respected her choice.
My parents came only after she was sedated. I understood I would not see her alive again but I was ready to fly to reunite with my family shortly after her death. It did not happen, however, as I learned after she passed away that she had ruled out any funeral. She just wanted to be cremated and for her ashes to be scattered in the Alps at some point. She did not want her name to be engraved next to those of her parents in the village’s cemetery.
As disorienting as it was not to be able to gather as a family to bid her farewell, there was no denying her will. She wanted to be left alone, to dispense of the social rituals even though she would no longer be there to suffer them. I suspect her decision also reflected some anger at her life being cut short. There was so much more she could have lived for, including being a grandmother. I felt powerless and deeply saddened by the injustice of her untimely end.
The stark differences between these two deaths in our family linger in my mind. Two women. One Indian, one French. One in her eighties, one in her fifties. One dying suddenly and as comfortably as possible, one going through a painful illness. One being honored through comprehensive traditional rituals attended by her family and her entire social circle, one refusing any funeral. How could things be more apart in terms of how death was experienced by these two women and by the people around them?
My own perspective, nurtured by these experiences, is that bidding farewell together matters a lot to those who remain. In the case of my mother’s sister that time finally came last summer when we went to scatter her ashes at the pass in the French Alps she had designated, one of favorite hiking spots. It was a beautiful long hike in clear weather. It took us several hours to reach our objective. Those hours were spent talking, looking around, and looking down in some challenging stretches; but they were also full of her memory. I think I will remember that day until my turn comes to say goodbye.