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Body of the dead, rituals of the death and disenfranchised grief in post-COVID society 

By Jigyasa Sogarwal

With modern urban living, people die in hospitals, tied to several interveinal and portable machines. Around the paraphernalia of science and medicine, people no longer die at home, in their beds, with their families. They die, nevertheless. Due to COVID-19, several of them died, everywhere.

My grandfather was rushed to a hospital in an ambulance in the dead of the night. My brother and I were seated on a bench in this very large hospital building. The same building in the daytime was full of people and noise, doctors, and smell.  Our whispers were piercing through the winter cold. One could hear the beeps of the heartbeat monitors. The sound of footsteps approached us. Soon an old man, probably my grandfather’s age, crossed us from where we were seated. He walked a little longer and stopped by the counter which was the OPD billing counter in morning hours but was comfortably deserted now. He then made a call from a small phone which he took out from a cotton phone cover that no one from our generation seems to carry anymore. He wore a monkey cap and a long oversize sweater. He dialed a number, and we could hear the phone ringing on the other side of the call. We were both curious now and we forgot we have a grandfather whose life hung in the middle. The old man had our attention. A young male voice spoke on the other side. “She is no more. Your mother passed away,” he repeated over the speaker. We were torn in pieces, with a knot in our throats increasingly moving through our chests and resting at our guts.

Two nights and three days later, my grandfather succumbed to COVID-19 in the same hospital.

We are a migrant family. Religious rituals necessitated that he be cremated back in our ancestral village like the rest of his family. His dead body which is what he was now, the body of a person he used to be, was a COVID carrier and any such transportation we were told was not allowed under the standard operating procedure. It required crossing boundaries across three states. The coordination with the administration itself, we were being told, would be a nightmare. We had no time, how can there be with a body waiting in the morgue?

We burnt him in the local crematorium with full PPE kits on.

Extended family back at the ancestral village looked at the funeral pyre on their mobile video screens while we held our camera phones still. This was not a video chat with a best friend at the end of a busy workday. This was not a video chat of long distant lovers. This was not an office team meeting video call. My grandfather was burning to ashes, and I had to point the camera to his pyre so that his wife of forty years, his daughters, brothers, sons, grandsons and hundreds of his former students and village friends and family could see him burning. Susan Sontag (1977) suggests in her famous work On Photography that people used cameras as a shield, putting it in between themselves and whatever remarkable they encountered. The burning body of the dead is probably the most remarkable. The spectacle of the funeral pyre and the video recording on pause and play were to repeat in its many manifestations throughout the world.

A couple of months later, dead bodies started floating ashore on the Ganga River. The ambulances and morgues were overbooked, over running. Stories of philanthropic cremations and burials surfaced where an ambulance man from Delhi and police personnel from Mumbai were cremating the unclaimed dead bodies in municipal hospitals and morgues. By one reportage, at the peak of the covid wave, there were huge waiting lines of dead. Human beings were competing for space and time, even in death. The National Human Rights Commission, meanwhile, on 14 May 2021 issued an advisory for upholding Dignity and Protecting the Rights of the Dead. The state and its institutions, including the local government, were made responsible “for protecting the rights of deceased and to prevent any crimes over the dead body.”

Although planned death is a misnomer, death in old age, where one has experienced large parts of what constitutes a good life is considered a desirable one. Quite often we reach out to our loved ones in their last time. It is considered profoundly sad to be alone in death. Yet, COVID-19 left many families and relations, real people so terribly alone both in death and in their mourning. One person who lost a young sister closer to his age wondered, “If god took the wrong child from his parents.” Both siblings encountered COVID-19 around the same time; one survived and other did not. Some bereaved are dealing with survivor’s guilt; others are profoundly angry at themselves, at the health system, at our governments, at God. In Anger and Forgiveness (2016), Martha Nussbaum writes, “Anger is how we seek to create an illusion of control where we feel we have none.” Death is not new to people but it makes us lose control in times of great death when the known patterns of grieving, the cultural practices and idioms that kept societies from collapsing in their own sorrow, were suddenly made unavailable. People were dying and surviving the death of loved ones in a world that no longer made sense.

It is in this background that I wish to raise the question of the body of the dead. What role do mourning rituals play in grief management? Where is grief located in the human body? What role does grief play in the way the society collectively thinks of the dead? What did the pandemic do to our capacity to hold and express grief? What can the political do for its collective body?

There is a certain amount of ritual dignity attached to the body of the dead in all religious thoughts and practices. In his chapter, “Cognitive theory of ritualised treatment of the body of the dead” (2013,) William Lee W. McCorkle Jr write, “Religious participants all over the world ritually burn, bury, cremate, pickle, mummify, wrap, wash and decorate dead bodies.” This is partly because it is in death that the human sees up-close the finiteness of its being. The divine or superhuman in whichever form it is seen is most starkly and powerfully manifest in the reality of death. Human beings have been able to establish control over everything but not death. The second reason perhaps is the unmarked unidentified space and time of the in-between. The dead have not entirely passed on; they are still here in the form of their body. And yet they are not entirely here. They have ceased to be persons. The body of the dead is not life anymore, but it used to be a life. This place of suspended time where they are neither here in this world nor have passed onto another world is extraordinary and outside the scope of humans. Hence it is considered with such ritual reverence almost coterminous with fear. The dead bodies tend to create cognitive responses in the living that are based on evolutionary biology. Boyers (2001) named five such systems that are triggered as a response: hypersensitivity to agents, animacy and theory of mind, contagion or disgust systems, et cetera. It has been argued with respect to the ethics of grief that emotive dispossessing experiences such as grief, anger and even desire “sensitise the subject to its own stubborn opacity, its internal unknowingness” (Mclevor 2012). These experiences are capable of stitching together a common community life.

However, during COVID-19, the reverence and ritual meticulousness attached with the body of the dead was taken over by technocratic contagion like specificities. Only those religious practices that did not involve touching the body were allowed. The standard operating procedure (SOP) denied ritual bathing, ornamentation, and garlanding. Instead, the dead body was to be packed in a plastic bag to be disposed of with least contact. Moreover, the bereaved had to experience their grief in private. Owing to the infection, they were denied an active role in care for the dying. Attending funeral services, participating in small rituals practices, including holding ceremonial lunch, siva, or lowering the casket with their hands or carrying the body in a procession which help in resolving by processing grief were denied.

This inability to mourn given the structural conditions associated with the pandemic and restrictions on movement can be understood as ‘Disenfranchised grief’ discussed by Kenneth J Doka in his 1999 article with the same title. Disenfranchised grief is defined “as the grief experienced by those who incur a loss that is not or cannot be, openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported.” Societies have had a certain number of rules that specify who, where and how the dead can be grieved. The legitimate rights and spaces of grieving are designed to cater to relationships – familial and social. David V. Mclivor speaks of ‘politics of mourning’ and ‘melancholic subjectivity’ in the works of Judith Butler. Butler begins to articulate the inarticulateness of mourning with respect to heterosexual desires. Taking a cue from the “abortion and foreclosure” of practices and performance of mourning in Butler’s thought, one could understand the “archeological remainder of grief.” The stigma attached to COVID-19 related deaths, and the prohibition of touch triggered traumatic histories of exclusion. A caste ridden society with a history of untouchability fell back on practices of denial of dignity, to both the body of the dead as well as of the living.

Grief was also denied when the relationship between the dead and bereaved was not recognised. Actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death hit people personally. At the peak of the pandemic, where many were dealing with depression, suicidal thoughts, domestic violence and a general increase in stress and anxiety, Rajput’s suicide at the prime of his youth was felt personally. Isolation in hospitals had translated into complete absence of the diseased from the household. It was as if they were away. The household routine and work went on as is, while the diseased body remained melancholically present in its isolated absence. Rumour machines and societies of gossip continued to flourish even around the dead. The death itself in such cases was disenfranchising. In the rural hinterland, both shame and embarrassment preceded grief. Families increasingly experienced a sense of social reproach, even ostracization over circumstances of COVID-19 death.

We must ask the question what a post-pandemic world could do with respect to vast amounts of residual grief suspended in the social.

What counts as grief or grieving life is itself a political question. For large parts of history, human societies have come up with ways to deal with and move on from such amounts of grief: “Collective memory is maintained by ritual performance, it is not so much abstract and mental as it is bodily” (Connerton 1989).

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, came at important junctures to speak of morale. He dictated that we beat utensils at a certain time, or clap in unison from our balconies for doctors, nurses and health service providers who were called the corona warriors. The fight against the virus and variants was termed and articulated as a war and that the symbolic acts of support were intended to keep the manobal (motivation) of the people going, especially in times of intense pressure and isolation. This enthusiasm, however, was missing with respect to speaking of grief and mourning. The Prime Minister did have one low moment where he spoke with moist eyes and a warm voice. The national media was soon to capture this moment by headlining its news reports thus: “PM Narendra Modi gets emotional as he pays homage to those who died due to coronavirus” (ABP News). The personhood of the Prime Minister and the politics of a strong leader crying took all attention away from public iterations of grief. The most visible and acceptable forms of grief associated with the state are those of fallen in war, or in the service of the nation. War is typically understood as the one fought in the honour and protection of the nation-state. State memorials of the dead including the Rajghat and its complexes, India Gate, National War Memorial, etc. are mostly adorned with a symbolic fire as a symbol of the spirit of the dead in plural merged into the collective memory of the nation (See Emile Durkheim’s concept of ‘Collective Representation’).

The politics of mourning and grief can be argued to revolve around the path of acknowledgement and justice, and even reparation. But during COVID-19, people were angry with themselves for failing to arrange oxygen, or ashamed of being carriers of a deadly virus, or disgusted with their neighbours and grateful to strangers. In conditions where grief has brought helplessness, regret and even uncertainty, the question that the social and political collective need to ask is: What would a meaningful embodiment of grief in a post-pandemic society look like?

References

Arnold, David. Burning the dead: Hindu nationhood and the global construction of Indian tradition. University of California Press, 2021.

Boyer, Pascal. Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books, New York, 2001

Connerton, Paul. How societies remember. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Corr, Charles A. “Enhancing the concept of disenfranchised grief.” OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, vol. 38, no. 1 (1999): 1-20.

Doka, Kenneth J. “Disenfranchised grief.” Bereavement care, vol. 18, no. 3 (1999): 37-39.

Doka, K. J. “Disenfranchised grief in historical and cultural perspective.” In M. S. Stroebe, R. O. Hansson, H. Schut, & W. Stroebe (Eds.), Handbook of bereavement research and practice: Advances in theory and intervention. American Psychological Association, 2008. Pp. 223–240.

Durkheim, Emile. The elementary forms of the religious life. Allen & Unwin, 1976.

Klass, Dennis and Robert Goss. “The politics of grief and continuing bonds with the dead: The cases of Maoist China and Wahhabi Islam.” Death studies, vol. 27, no. 9 (2003): 787-811.

Marušić, Berislav. “Do reasons expire? An essay on grief.” Philosopher’s Imprint, vol. 18, no. 25 (2018): 1-21.

McCorkle Jr, William W. “From corpse to concept: a cognitive theory on the ritualized treatment of dead bodies.” In Origins of Religion, Cognition and Culture. Routledge, 2014. Pp. 388-409.

McIvor, David W. “Bringing ourselves to grief: Judith Butler and the politics of mourning.” Political Theory, vol. 40, no. 4 (2012): 409-436.

Nussbaum, Martha and James Stacey Taylor. “The damage of death.” The metaphysics and ethics of death (2013): 225-243.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Anger and forgiveness: Resentment, generosity, justice. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Sontag, Susan. On photography. Vol. 48. Macmillan, 2001.

“Covid-19: Villagers attack police, doctors during cremation of suspected patient in Haryana.”

https://scroll.in/latest/960412/covid-19-villagers-attack-police-doctors-during-cremation-of-suspected-patient-in-haryana, accessed 20 September 2022.

“Coronavirus: Mumbai police officer lauded for cremating unclaimed bodies amid lockdown.” https://scroll.in/latest/962656/coronavirus-mumbai-police-officer-lauded-for-cremating-unclaimed-bodies-amid-lockdown, accessed 20 September 2022.

“India coronavirus: The man giving dignified burial to Covid-19 victims.”

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52380573, accessed 20 September 2022

“Advisory for upholding the dignity and protecting the rights of the dead.” https://nhrc.nic.in/sites/default/files/NHRC%20Advisory%20for%20Upholding%20Dignity%20%26%20Protecting%20the%20Rights%20of%20Dead.pdf

Bio:
Jigyasa Sogarwal
is a PhD candidate at Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She can be contacted at jigyasa.218@gmail.com

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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