Honouring the dead in times of epidemic

(The dead deserve a proper funeral.  But many times a  proper funeral is not possible immediately for reasons of  wars, natural disasters,  epidemics and so on when the bodies have to be disposed of   unceremoniously out of necessity. Still they can be given the honour due to them in good times, as was done by ancient societies including those in the Nilgiris)

All Nilgiri communities had two funerals. One, a ‘Green funeral’ immediately after death and a ‘Dry funeral’, after a convenient time period. For the dry funeral,  the earth is tied in a cloth to the neck of a walking stick to represent the dead person  and all the usual funerary rituals are then performed on the stick.

For the Badagas, if a person is eaten by a tiger, carried away in a flood, buried by government authorization after an autopsy, or burned as a plague victim (such that no corpse remains), the rituals can be performed over some object that the deceased was fond of or over a walking stick, in the case of a man or a headband, in the case of a woman. And in earlier times, if a man disappeared, his relatives would wait 12 years to see if he might return. After that they held the dry funeral using a stick in place of the corpse. (Should he return, he was isolated from the community until a ritual of reinstatement had been performed.)

If during an epidemic,   many bodies are buried without ceremony, a communal disposal of walking sticks to which earth has been tied will occur. All will be placed on a single cot, then each family will do the obsequies for its particular members and afterward a joint grain-placing ceremony is performed at the Funeral Grassland.

The  head of the cot is oriented toward the west, and the sticks lie parallel to each other with their handles toward the west. They lie in order of generational level of the dead, with the senior most to the south and the junior most to the north. Within each generational level they are ranked according to actual age but are not separated by sex. Finally, depending on the custom of the phratry, all the sticks will be burned on one pyre or else will be buried in a pit.

The Todas have the green funeral immediately and after some months have the dry funeral for those dead and those who had died since then. As an observer noted, “This is called the dry funeral  but from the amount of feasting and drinking, dancing that ensues, it would appear to be anything but dry”.

Similarly, the Senufo tribe of Burkina Faso have their funeral in two stages. Firstly,  the “wet funeral” which happen in the days following the death of the deceased. One or more years after the burial of the deceased comes the “dry funeral”. These events are always held when the granaries are full of food, after harvest and during the dry season. These rituals last for several days. During this period, the village of the deceased is in spree, and its activity is punctuated by the funeral dances and festivities. They come from afar to attend the funeral celebrations of one of their community member.

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