This is my grandmother. Her name was Lalita, but she went by Ata, a nickname which she received from her eldest child when he was too young to pronounce her name correctly and one which stuck for decades. To me, she was simply “ba,” the Gujarati word for “grandmother.”
Exactly one week ago, on Monday, April 24, 2017, my ba died. It was heart-wrenching, but it didn’t come as too much of a shock; she’d had a stroke four years ago, and her health had been deteriorating ever since. Since I was a baby, she’d always stayed with my immediate family in our house, so she continued to do so as we kept a close eye on her and made sure she took her medicine and underwent the treatment she needed. Recently she caught the flu, and though she tried to push through it, we all could tell she wasn’t recovering fully and simply wasn’t physically strong enough to be able to. For the two weeks or so before her death, she’d been under hospice care in a hospital here in Tampa, and family and friends flew in from across the country to see her one last time. She passed away peacefully, in her sleep, surrounded by the people she loved and the ones who loved her the most. She’d lived a long and happy 88 years, the last 19 of which I was lucky to be there for personally.
The funeral was a few days later, on the following Thursday. It went as expected; tears were shed, words were spoken, consolation was given. What struck me as weird, however, was what happened before and after it. Before we left for the funeral home, my aunt told my cousins and I to make sure our towels were already laid out in the bathrooms. Baffled, we asked why, and she responded that we needed to take a shower after the funeral and we couldn’t touch anything in the house – including our towels – before we did so.
I could tell immediately that this was some tradition I hadn’t been made aware of before. This would be the first funeral I’ve ever attended, so I knew there would be some rituals that I’d just have to roll with and ask about later. My aunt was under a lot of stress and I knew better than to question her about the reason why at the time, so I simply trekked back upstairs and set my towel out in preparation.
On the way home after the service, I tentatively posed the question: Why do we need to shower after a funeral? My aunt at first chalked it up to primarily for tradition’s sake, but she went on to explain the meaning and logic behind the tradition. Once a person dies, they can no longer fight off bacteria and the body begins to decompose. Those who attend the funeral are exposed to the body and thus to the bacteria that facilitate decomposition as well. In order to prevent spreading germs and potential infection, the people who attended the funeral should bathe or shower immediately after the service and before touching anyone else or anything.
The tradition is a dated one. Centuries ago, people didn’t have the same hygiene practices nor technology which is available to us now. So although the process may not be necessary anymore, its origins make sense, and there’s no reason not to carry on the custom.
When listening to my aunt explain this, I couldn’t help but immediately draw connections between this tradition and the idea of ecological bodies. In Bodily Natures, Stacy Alaimo refers to Linda Nash’s concept of the ecological body: a body characterized by “permeability,” by “a constant exchange between inside and outside, by fluxes and flows, and by its close dependence on the surrounding environment” (Alaimo 90). The definition of the modern body, on the other hand, is concerned with health being the absence of disease; “it implies both purity and the ability to fend off harmful organisms and substances” (Alaimo 90). This relates practically directly to the rationale behind the tradition. This ancient tradition acknowledges the modern body through establishing that a dead body cannot fight off bacteria or disease, and it differentiates between the individual bodies of the living and the individual bodies of the dead. In that sense, it creates a sort of divide between the living human body and its environment and surroundings. However, it also acknowledges the ecological body by recognizing that exchange between lifeless and alive bodies – and, by extension, the rest of nature – can occur.
Privately, this tradition serves another purpose that my aunt didn’t mention: closure. The idea of physically washing away the pain of loss and emerging from that, being able to move on, is powerful to me. I loved my ba with all my heart, but I know she wouldn’t want me to waste my time in mourning. There was nothing she wanted more than for us to work hard and succeed, and I’m determined to get there for her. I know she’s in a better place now. She still lives on in the habits I picked up from her and the memories of the laughs we shared on the daily, and it’s a little bittersweet, but I’ll cherish that for as long as I live.
Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2010. Print.