Unless you’ve been living on Mars, you must have seen pictures of that now-infamous ‘selfie’ that Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt clicked with US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron at the memorial of the late, great Nelson Mandela. The three world leaders, grinning cheesily into the camera, craned their necks together to get into the frame, oblivious to the thunder-faced Michelle Obama who looked pointedly away.
I am no mind reader, but I can pretty much guess what was going through Michelle Obama’s head as her husband grinned goofily for the camera. What on earth are you thinking, Barack? This is the memorial service of a remarkable man who inspired millions across the globe. Countries from across the world have sent their leaders to pay homage to his soul. This is a solemn occasion to mark the passing of a true hero. This is not the time to pose for a ‘selfie’.
But then, much of the world was thinking along the same lines. Memorial services and funerals are supposed to be about remembering those who have passed on and honouring their lives, not posing for cheesy pictures on the sidelines. You can just about forgive giddy teenagers for gaffes like these, but heads of state and government? Seriously, what is the world coming to?
Of course, there were those who said that we were making much ado about nothing. The Mandela memorial service was about celebrating his life and having a rollicking good time while at it. So, what was wrong if Obama and Cameron decided to flirt a little or even pose for a picture with Ms Thorning-Schmidt? It was all in good fun, and knowing Nelson Mandela, he would probably have chuckled along, or even leant in for a piece of the action.
As the debate raged on, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is the right funeral etiquette these days? There was a time when there was general agreement that funerals were solemn occasions, where grave faces and discreet tears were the order of the day. People came clad sombrely in black (or white), sat quietly to pay their respects, and then left to allow the family to mourn in peace and privacy.
These days, however, all that seems to be changing. First off, in India at least, nobody seems to abide by the all-white dress code. People come wearing pretty much what they like, from jeans and kurtas, to saris and shorts, all in colours of their choosing. Many people don’t even bother to sit through all the bhajans, leaving as soon as they have marked their attendance with the family. Those who do, fiddle discreetly with their phones, answering mails and sending smses so that they don’t miss out on a single minute of a working day. And the close friends and family members who stay back for a cup of tea or coffee afterwards, shuffle awkwardly as they try and make conversation with the bereaved, and take off as soon as they can without violating the laws of common decency.
Part of the problem, of course, is that all of us are, at some level, rendered acutely uncomfortable by death. There is an element of ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’ in our reactions to the news of someone’s passing. And in that maelstrom of emotions, we find it hard to negotiate the best way to communicate our sympathy to those who have lost a loved one. “I am so sorry about your loss,” sounds exactly like the cliché it is when we say it to someone who has lost a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or even worse, a child. But no matter how acutely we feel for them, we don’t seem to have the vocabulary to express the depth of our feelings. And so, it just seems easier to just avoid any meaningful conversation until the worst of their grief has passed.
But no matter how uncomfortable we feel, it behoves us to treat a funeral with proper respect. And that means turning up on time, instead of halfway through the prayer service. It involves dressing in a manner that respects the memory of those that have passed (it doesn’t have to be funeral black or white so long as you stick to formal wear). It means no cracking silly jokes, just to break the tension.
And even if you can’t think of what to say, don’t avoid meeting those who have lost a loved one. Just hug them close, and give them the chance to weep on your shoulder, should they want to take it. Don’t make them embarrassed about their tears. Don’t tell them to cheer up. Never say, “Don’t cry”. Offer a tissue to wipe their tears, give them the space to share their feelings with you, and most of all, allow them to grieve in your presence.
It doesn’t matter if you are not good with spoken words. Find some other way to acknowledge their loss. Write a letter sharing anecdotes about those who have passed on. If you have some nice pictures of the departed soul, frame them and send them to the family as a remembrance. Share a book or a piece of music to help those grieving.
From HT Brunch, December 22
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