Bereavement in Khasi Family
What Khasis do when there is a bereavement in the family.
The way Khasis handle bereavement is sometimes baffling to others. For most of them find that Khasis start feasting when someone is bereaved in the family and one can hear a lot of laughter from the house of the bereaved. I as a non-Khasi person married to a Khasi lady for over 36 years have been observing this for over 20 years of living among the Khasis and have visited many bereaved families and attended many Khasi funerals and cremations. I would like to share my observations with you.
When a person is sick or lying in his or her death bed word gets around quick in the village and the circle of relatives and friends. People start flocking to the house of the sick person to pay a visit. Usually there is a steady flow of people coming to see the sick person. Often, the visitors visiting the sick person leave behind something for the sick person in cash or kind. Thus, there is a system of social security and societal concern for the sick person and support to the sick person and the family. If they are poor, the cash gifts help them to meet the treatment expenses.
When a person dies in a family, the people living around come to know almost immediately. This is either due to the wailing in the bereaved family or because already some people are around the dying person. Though they are not blood relatives of the deceased person or the bereaved family, the neighbours swing into action to get things organized to receive people who would come to pay their final respects to the deceased person and share the grief of the bereaved family members.
In the villages and even in the towns and the only City – Shillong, they start helping to put the things in order in the house, turn around the pictures on the walls – to show that there is a bereavement in the family. The deceased is kept on a bed in a corner of the room where he or she had passed away. White Lace curtains are placed around two sides while the other two sides of the bed are barricaded by walls. The men start collecting bamboos from the garden or around to make temporary sheds / shamianas / shelters for visiting people. Tarpaulins are brought and using the bamboos and tarpaulins shelters are made to seat the people visiting the bereaved family so that they are able to be seated protected from the elements of Nature. (Where Tent House Rentals are available, the job is given to them to create the temporary shelter to seat the guests outside the house of the bereaved since usually indoor space will not be enough to accommodate the visiting people.) Most of the work is undertaken by neighbours even before the relatives arrive. The women folk tend to arrange for the making of tea to serve the people visiting to pay respect to the deceased and to console the bereaved family. Steps are taken to buy biscuits, sliced cakes, bread rusks, sliced bread to serve with tea. Once the close relatives of the bereaved arrive they organize for cooking food to feed those who come from far to pay respects to the deceased. Very often the neighbours or some of the relatives who are conversant with cooking for large groups volunteer to do the cooking. No one is needed to persuade someone to do this or that chore. People volunteer themselves to work according to the need. The women busy themselves peeling the husk and cutting Kwai – betelnut, slicing and folding betel leaves with a smear of lime paste. Betel leaves with lime smeared and folded along with cut betel nuts are always kept available for the visitors to help themselves. Young girls and boys busy themselves serving tea and biscuits to the visitors. Often, both milk tea and liquor tea (black tea) are on offer with the biscuits and their service is repeated at frequent intervals and especially when new people drop in. The smiling and sometimes giggling youngsters are introduced to the visiting relatives thus and become an important part of the hospitality extended to the visitors.
Once the bereaved have overcome the immediate grief of the sudden loss of the loved one; their attention is directed to take care of the people arriving. This is one of the ways, the bereaved are helped to overcome the grief over the irreplaceable loss of a close relative. The immediate close female relative or relatives of the deceased – mother, wife or daughter/daughters, sister/sisters sit on a mattress spread on the ground adjacent to the bed where the deceased is kept. Thus one or other close female relative will sit near the deceased’s body till the body is taken out for cremation or burial.
One group of men, busy themselves to measure the deceased, to get or buy planks to make a coffin for the deceased. In the villages, the villagers themselves often make the coffin. The lining cloth, the covering cloth for the coffin, the decorative laces, generie -the pins for making designs on the coffins are usually available in any major shops in the village or in the nearby town. Where the family is better off they tend to buy readymade coffins from Coffin Makers in the City which can cost much according to the fine polish and embellishments on the coffin. In the case of coffins covered with linen, white cloth is used for the coffins for the unmarried and maroon or blue or red colours for those married or those who are no more virgin or bachelor. For Christians the Cross comes along with the Coffin. If the deceased is an unmarried bachelor or a virgin, then he or she is dressed up in white clothes.
Separate sitting place is provided for the visiting men and women in the house of the deceased. People sit around for considerably long time to reassure the bereaved family. During this time, especially in later hours of the evening to keep themselves awake those waiting engage in conversations on topics that are current, play games like Carrom. The close relatives take turns to keep vigil during the night till the third night after burial.
Once there is bereavement in a family, the family is not left alone at night too till after three days of the burial. It is believed that the dead person’s spirit will come to visit the house before leaving for heaven. Usually the body is buried or cremated on the third day. Preservative Injections are given to the body by paramedics to prevent decomposition. This gives time for all those who are staying far and near to come and pay their last respects to the deceased person. The people living close by and in villages, the people of the village, keep dropping in of and on to the house of the bereaved to find out where they can lend a helping hand. People who visit especially from far places are always requested by the bereaved family to have food before leaving. This was a need for those days where people had to travel on foot long distances and there were hardly any shops where they can have food.
For the day of burial, good amount of food is cooked to feed all those who come to take part in the funeral or cremation. Usually according to the turn out of people expected one or more pigs are bought, slaughtered and cooked. Most of this work is all taken care of by the people from the village or neighbours. Often, bigger shops in the area, on such occasions allow the family of the deceased to purchase all their need for groceries on account, for feeding the people who come to pay their last respects to the deceased, which is settled after the third day of the funeral. Usually the menu is not elaborate, but alternate meat dish is kept for those who may not take pork. Usually rice is served with soft boiled potatoes, cucumber, tomato, radish salad, dal, pork dishes such as boiled or sauted pork, shredded boiled pork mixed with onion, ginger and chopped green chillies.
The people who are keeping the wake in the house of the deceased other than those who are seated near the deceased body keep themselves awake through the night by playing cards or carrom board. During this time, one can hear them talking loud or shouting enjoying the game. Often when playing they crack jokes and break out in laughter. Tea service is maintained through the night to help them keep awake. The doors are kept open day and night in the belief that the dead person’s spirit will come to visit the house any time. A light is kept burning near the body of the deceased, a small cup or a small vessel with water is kept with a sprig of a plant to help sprinkle water on the dead body by those coming to pay homage to the deceased. Often a plate with rice, dal and meat is kept near the body as food for the spirit of the deceased person.
Usually seating is provisioned for women to sit in the inner rooms, whereas men folk are seated in the living room or if the houses are not big enough in the temporary shelters made outside the house of the deceased. People who come to console the bereaved, sit about in the areas allocated for sometime before meeting the close relative who is or are seated close to the dead body. During this time, they greet the persons whom they know and are already seated or get introduced. People of the house are prompt to get tea and snacks served to the new visitors who had just arrived. During this time, I found people discussing the current topics and politics. This platform to meet the people of the constituency is very much used by the politicians who are prompt to drop in at the house of the deceased to show their concern and to disseminate their thoughts to those present. I found this too opportunistic. These times I find that they tend to forget that they have come to console the bereaved and not to hold a political discourse. The more one spends time in the house of the bereaved is taken to show their love for the deceased and concern for the bereaved.
After sometime, the visitors excuse themselves from others who are seated, to go and meet the close relative of the deceased. After sharing words of empathy to the bereaved, they usually quietly hold the hand of the bereaved to put some money in her hand to meet the expenses. This system helps the family to meet the huge expense incurred on feeding the people and the funeral related expenses. This I found to be a good form of social security especially to the poor and needy families. The bereaved family invariably insists that the person should not leave without having food in their house so that the deceased will depart in peace.
From the day before the day of funeral or cremation, women relatives and neighbours collect in groups and engage in making flower wreaths for the funeral. Many of these women are highly skilled in making paper, cloth flowers and making bouquets and wreaths with both natural flowers and artificial flowers. On one side few women engage in preparing betel nuts and betel leaves for the consumption of the visitors. ‘Kwai’ – betelnut with betel leaf and lime- is a very important part of Khasi hospitality.
Usually the funeral service is held on the third day at around 2 pm. By that time good many people, relatives and friends gather to bid farewell to the departed soul. The people of the house persuade everyone to partake in the meal arranged. People living close by help the bereaved family by sparing space in their porch or in their house for seating / feeding the visitors, for making the flower bouquets and wreaths.
Before the start of the funeral service, all those who have come are requested to partake in the meal prepared for them. The service of food and attendant care of the guests is taken care of by near relatives, people from the neighbourhood and the village. The close relatives engage themselves in directing the visitors to the place where food is served.
The funeral service at the house, is more organized with one modulating the function. The coffin is brought outside the house and is usually placed on two covered benches and the immediate close relatives are seated on both the sides of the coffin. The brief agenda of the obituary service is announced. Usually one speaks on behalf of the Family, another speaks on behalf of the Clan of the deceased, sometimes also from the Clan of the Spouse of the deceased, another speaks on behalf of the village. If the deceased was still in service at the time of his/her death, someone from the Establishment speaks about the deceased. The good deeds of the deceased is extolled and proper homage is paid. Words of solace soothe the aggrieved family members. Sometimes, the grief stricken family representative is emotionally charged and struggle to give the obituary speech. Thereafter, the funeral service as per the religious persuasion begins.
For those cremating the dead, a funeral pyre is prepared and it is barricaded on four sides with banana plant stem placed horizontally to a height of about 4 feet and then covered with velvet cloth. The body is removed from the coffin and is placed inside this closed area over the pyre and the fire is lit from underneath. Thus one can not see the body when it is set on fire. The use of banana stem for barricading prevents any smell of the burning flesh unlike the way one smells burnt flesh in other cremation grounds. Those who attend the cremation – usually many – wait till the body is fully cremated. During this wait, I find that usually tea is served to those who have come and ‘Kwai’ is distributed too.
For those burying their dead, the service at the Cemetery before the burial is conducted by the Church Priest/ Pastor or Religious Leaders. After the coffin is placed in the pit starting with the person conducting the service, one by one all the people who attend throw three handfuls of soil in to the grave. After the grave is covered, the family members usually decorate the grave with the flowers and wreaths that were placed to pay homage to the departed.
On the next day after the funeral, the house is washed clean besides the clothes. The wake is continued till the third night after the funeral. On the third day, the mourning is concluded. Bereavements in Khasi families thus brings the relatives and community closer to console the bereaved and reassure the support of the extended family. On the third day, the accounts for the expenses are settled by utilizing the cash gifts received during the occasion and the left over expenses, if any, is met by the bereaved family or shared by close relatives.