Final rites are essential not only to help the soul of the deceased move on, but to comfort the living too.
Losing a loved one or someone we care about deeply is difficult; coping with the sorrow can be a painful affair in which we often suffer in silence. I’m moved to write on the subject of grief as the nation mourns the mysterious loss of 239 passengers and crew on Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean.
Although I do not know any of the missing people on board the ill-fated aircraft personally, I felt morally obliged to visit at least one of the grieving families and provide them with words of comfort and compassion.
I made a trip to Teluk Panglima Garang in Banting to spend some time with G. Subramaniam, whose son Puspanathan, 34, a marketing manager with Petronas, was on the flight and on his way to Beijing for work on March 8. His family and relatives experienced intense sadness over the loss of Puspanathan because he was Subramaniam’s only son. The grieving father and his family are unable to accept the announcement that his breadwinner son is dead because there is no body for him to perform the final rites.
In his house, Subramaniam has refused to display the photograph of his son in mourning and is still hopeful that Puspanathan will appear soon. Puspanathan’s wife K. Sridevi, 30, and their sons, Varmer, three, and Thashuvarmen, one, are also waiting for his return.
Subramaniam held my hands and asked: “How can they declare my son dead when there is no evidence of his body and how do I perform the final rites now? What date and time do I follow of his passing?”
To come to terms and develop acceptance with the tragic news, I told him that according to Hinduism, death is the starting point of a new and better life. According to the Hindu scripture of Garuda Purana, death does not end an individual but opens the door to a higher form of life. Hinduism also teaches that death is simply the separation of the soul from the physical body and the soul, which is the real you, does not die.
Although no words can comfort the 60-year-old Subramaniam so soon after the way his son vanished, with conflicting theories surfacing day by day, he was willing to listen. The news of death, or even the discussion of it, is a sensitive matter in many communities; various belief systems, however, provide solace and guidance on how to manage such issues with strength, and to move on.
To the Hindus, death represents a spiritual opportunity to attain oneness with the divine. It is viewed as a component of the natural life cycle – life, death and rebirth. In the unprecedented loss of Puspanathan, whose body is not recovered or recoverable, the families can still perform certain ceremonies to free the soul.
The last rites are important to free the confused soul from being earthbound because it does not realise fully the body it inhabited has died suddenly. The ancient text recommends specific prayers and rituals to expedite the liberation of the soul in accordance with the religious system of the deceased person’s respective faith. This is vital because it is said that the soul will remain on earth for 12 years in cases of tragic death.
Another important aspect about death is the disposal of the body of the deceased, whether through burial or cremation, as both methods involve ceremonies that are to be done respectfully. In unfortunate cases like Puspanathan, where a funeral cannot be conducted because there is no body, daily prayers are a must with the final ceremony performed on the 16th or 31st day.
According to P. S. Maniam, the author of the book Hindu Rites of Passage: The Funeral, an effigy representing the body should be made using holy grass or dried coconut fronds and dressed appropriately. In the Hindu system, the figurine should be placed on a funeral pyre and after the fire dies down, the ashes must be collected and scattered in moving water.
The specific ceremonies performed are mainly for the purification of the body and to allow the departed soul to attain a celestial abode. Although some people feel these methods are primitive and not practical in the modern era, scriptures stress that failing to perform the appropriate ceremonies can result in the soul not resting in peace.
Ceremonies for the departed are imperative in all faiths because they provide the individual with some happy closure to their life journey. Although they may be gone physically, every departed individual will continue to live in spirit in the hearts of their loved ones.
To all those who have lost their treasured ones in the MH370 tragedy, I am with you in energy, spirit, strength and prayer in this difficult period. I would like to conclude with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “For the born, death is unavoidable and for the dead, birth is sure to take place. Therefore, in a situation that is inevitable there is no justification for you to grieve.”
T. Selva, associate editor at The Star, is the author of the "Vasthu Sastra Guide" and is the first disciple of 7th-generation Vasthu Sastra master Yuvaraj Sowma from Chennai, India. You can follow him on Twitter at @tselvas and write to him at email@example.com. This column appears on the last Sunday of the month.
Vasthu Sastra Talk
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