Last Sunday, I had to attend the funeral of my aunt. She was issueless and a widow. Since her husband’s death, she had been living in an old age home. This is the place where Kerala’s geriatric population is increasingly being ‘confined’ to, to spend their sunset years, thanks to the fast changing social milieu in the state, viz: joint family system giving way to the nuclear one, children emigrating in search of ‘greener pastures’, skirmishes between the old generation and the new, exemplified by the ever-increasing sniper fire, or sometimes even carpet bombing between the ‘in-laws’. Older folk, who’ve spent their entire lifetime, rearing children, are unfortunately confined to these old age homes which lack uniformity in standards. This, when they should be among the love, caring, fun, frolic and warmth existing within a home among children, grandchildren and relatives, which they are entitled to. Old age homes range from ones resembling dungeons to almost ‘homelike’ ones. Financial clout of the inmates’ children usually decides the ‘home’ they are destined to spend time, awaiting death. I am honored to have my mother to live with me, my wife and two daughters. There is that occasional ‘sniper fire’ (luckily shooting into the air till date) between my mother and rest of the family. Ceasefire is luckily observed, and peace restored soon enough before the muzzle of the gun decides to change its direction from a vertical axis to a horizontal one. It is me who is the troublemaker-in-Chief most of the time. I tease my mother, pull her legs, and air jokes (well-meant of course) at her expense, which she refuses to accept sportively. These exchanges sometimes result in tears, which I ‘brush under the carpet’! I have resolved to persist with my histrionics to engage her mentally and emotionally. It will, I believe, do a great deal to stimulate her hippocampus (the part of the brain which controls emotions) and her lachrymal glands, (sitting in the inner corners of the eyes, produce tears) My daughters too have mastered my pestering ways, though truce is usually established between them swiftly. My wife, conveniently, chooses to adopt a policy of ‘non-alignment’ (diplomatically). I hope and believe that such ‘making fun’ at my mother’s expense would only help to keep dementia and other degenerating disorders that accompany senility at bay, through emotional and mental inputs that such exchanges provide .
My aunt, though issueless was in close fellowship with her sisters and their families. She also had people from her late husband’s family (to which I belong) visit her, ‘just to check out’, almost as a ritual. In her last days, she was dementic, and led a vegetable existence. To be frank, Death was kind to knock on her door at the old-age home, the usual mentality the so-called relatives and families of people like my aunt in that grim situation would take umbrage under, conveniently!(I must admit with a great deal of guilt) the home where my aunt lived was one with ‘reasonable standards’. A common hall was made available for the funeral proceedings, and quite effectively at that. The hall looked neatly decked and spruced up for the somber function. Chairs were arranged around the area meant for the body to be placed. On the chairs sat the inmates, almost all of them qualifying to be labeled ‘quite old’, with grim and sad expression, betraying the sense of loss. Some looked pensive, and others, forlorn. They sang hymns to the best of their ability as age permitted. Some singers impressed me with their singing skills which were reasonably preserved despite the odds.
Some chairs had walking sticks resting against them, while some created space to park an occasional walker among them. The body soon arrived from the mortuary. If it is old age homes for the old folk these days when alive, it is the mortuary when they die. It is a ‘facility’ put to great use in this state to preserve the dead till the near and dear arrive from various parts of this planet to ‘present their face’ at the funeral, which if they had chosen to do when the dead person were alive, would have greatly decorated their otherwise drab and hopeless existence .
The body was placed in the earmarked spot within the hall inside a ‘mobile freezer’, which is the younger brother of a full-fledged mortuary meant to buy more time for those ‘face presenters’ to arrive! The dead who are often denied a place in the comforts of their own homes and a decent existence when alive, are indeed lucky to spend a hour or two in the air-conditioned comforts of the mobile freezer, dressed in choicest outfits like a three-piece suit and tie for men and costliest sari in town for women, before being buried!
The inmates filed past their dead friend. Some placed a bouquet over the freezer, while some stood in silence for a few seconds with bowed heads, probably praying for the departed soul, and crossing themselves, before moving on. Others, keeping with the Indian tradition of paying respect, placed their palms together in a ‘namaste’. Some, making their way slowly with the help of their walking sticks, paused to shed a tear or two, before being comforted by others behind them. Luckily, nobody was insensitive enough to take a selfie with the lifeless body of my aunt forming the background! She was no politician, a movie star or a social ‘elite’! She was just an ‘ordinary’ old woman who was destined to die within the four walls of an old age home. However, the disobedient mobile phones did throw a spanner to the solemnity of the occasion.
After ‘paying the last respect’ part of the proceedings was through, it was time for more official matters. Other inmates offered words of condolence and comfort for those left behind through speeches of varying length and sobriety, and of course, volume. One of them spoke superlatively about my dead aunt. Speeches were followed by prayers. As the dead person was a Christian, and as the old age home was run by a Christian fellowship, priests representing various groups, and sub-sub groups of the Christian ‘Church’ were present to satisfy the ‘Christianity’ among and within the inmates and the powers- that-be of the home, in the interest of protocol and diplomacy, which absolutely was of no consequence to my aunt, I’m sure! The priests offered payers and words of comfort, standing below the picture of the Christ who pooh-poohed the ‘who is the greatest among us’ syndrome so rampant among the so-called ‘Christians’, and the pompous display of opulence allowed by of surplus of manna. These two form the most important reasons for the church of today to multiply like bacteria, and thrive on, resulting in the birth of various ‘denominations’ a term which includes the various groups, subgroups and sub-sub groups belonging to that faith. The long winding prayer session by the representatives of the various ‘denominations’ was beyond my forbearance, stamina, interest and health. Taking a last look at my lifeless aunt within the mobile freezer, I decided to leave without visiting the cemetery where she would be interned. I was almost certain at that point in time that another session of a possible ‘diplomatic’ prayer session in the cemetery, would necessitate a similar function for me!
Do we really have to wait for someone, especially the old among us to die to express our love and concern for them through a fraudulent exercise called funeral, where forced and cooked up words and emotions not exactly meant are churned out?
Is it not the duty of every citizen in this country to take care of the aged members of his or her family, right within the environs of a home? Don’t the aged deserve a warm smile and a gentle touch when they feel down? Don’t they deserve a helping hand should they fall? Don’t they deserve that tear to be wiped away? Don’t they need a shoulder to cry on? Didn’t they offer all these to us unconditionally during our growing up years? Shouldn’t their sunset years to be as sunny as possible? Don’t they deserve that? Do they really need to have that walking stick or the walker to walk away into the darkness beyond the sunset? Can’t we make their life worth living instead of making it worth dying for a dramatic funeral to be enacted? Wasn’t our mother at our side the whole night through when we took ill? Didn’t she feed us when we squealed with hunger, irrespective of the time of day or night? Didn’t she pick us up when we fell, and said ‘it’s OK’? Doesn’t she deserve all these herself, when she needs them? Of course she does!
Didn’t our father sweat it out to meet both ends meet, and to keep the home fires burning, when we were mere toddlers? Didn’t he toil hard to clothe, educate and keep us healthy, and take us to the movies, the parks and those cafeterias? Isn’t it our responsibility to do the same for them when they are unable to fend for themselves, at old age? Of course it is! Let us help them walk into their sunset on our shoulders with dignity, honor and self-respect. Let us not wait for the drama of a funeral, which means nothing to them!
Why not the new generation surprise the old with their ability to give unconditionally, to forego their plans to leave in search of greener pastures to ‘graze’ on, to give the aged among them quality time and attention, to be empathetic and sympathetic, to their parents, and other old folk in their families as well? Why not give our aged dear and near back what they us as we were growing up?
It is indeed their right to walk beyond their sunset as dignified human beings. I think our children will be grateful for setting an example for them to emulate!