Tears in heaven
Since when did we start deriding people for crying at funerals?
You couldn’t possibly have missed the brouhaha that erupted when George Osborne, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, let one solitary tear escape down his cheek at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.
The Internet went into instant meltdown. Some derided him for this show of ‘weakness’ (you know how ‘real’ men ‘never’ cry, right?). Others dismissed his tearing up as a cynical ploy to show just how good a Thatcherite he was (after all, what was he weeping about, given that he had met the Iron Lady on less than a dozen occasions?). There were those who agreed that yes, the tears were not genuine, but put them down to the Tory leader trying to create a more ‘caring’ image for himself (remember, this was a man who was booed at such a feel-good event as the London Olympics). Amidst all the jokes, jabs and jeering, there were only a few who said what I was feeling: what is the world coming to if you can’t even cry at a funeral?
Full disclosure here: I am one of the blubbers of the world. And yes, I cry at funerals. It doesn’t really matter how well I have known the deceased, or how many times I have met them. There is something about funerals that brings out the tears – well mine, at any rate. Sometimes it is a particular bhajan being sung as part of the service; sometimes a tiny detail that evokes memories of funerals past (of those I was particularly close to); sometimes it is the thought of how I would feel coping with a loss like this one; and sometimes it is just the sight of close family members of the deceased trying to pull themselves together even though they are clearly falling apart.
At a time like this, sympathy segues seamlessly into empathy, and you can’t help but cry for the universal sorrow that is bereavement. This is not something any of us can escape. At some time or another, we will have to mourn our grandparents, bid farewell to our parents, experience the loss of a sibling, see a close friend succumb to illness. If we are very lucky, we will never know the gut-wrenching sorrow of losing someone of the next generation, who should by rights have been the one to mourn us. But no matter how life pans out, bereavement that is something that all of us will have to bear, sooner or later.
As the saying goes, grief is the price you pay for love.
But what is the acceptable face of grief when you lose someone you loved, or even just admired from afar? And has it changed over the years?
In India, at least, I would have to say yes. Growing up in a traditional joint family, as a child I was witness to the spectacular outpouring of grief that everyone indulged in when there was a death in the extended clan. There was weeping; there was wailing; on some occasions, there was even some beating of breasts. It was loud, it was disturbing, it was even melodramatic at times. But everything said and done, it was undoubtedly cleansing.
After such an outburst of grief, you felt that you had really mourned someone. There was no buttoning up of your feelings. There was no concession made to sparing the feelings of others. There was no embarrassment about letting it all hang out. In a sense, you were given permission to grieve as publically as you saw fit; as loudly as you wanted to. And nobody judged you or condemned you as an incontinent so-and-so.
In the old days, certain Indian states like Rajasthan even had professional mourners, called Rudaalis (the subject of an eponymous movie that earned lead actress Dimple Kapadia a National award). These were lower-caste women hired to mourn (as loudly as possible) in an explosive public display of grief. This worked at two levels. One, to express the sorrow that the family may have been shy of exhibiting in public and two, to goad them into have a proper cry. Because sometimes there really is no better catharsis than tears.
But that was then. Now, tears at funerals are seen as bad taste. It is considered somewhat repellent to make a public exhibition of your grief. If you must cry, then cry in private. You must not shed tears in public in case you make other people uncomfortable. So, chin up please (and make sure it’s not quivering). And let’s see what the British so delightfully describe as a ‘stiff upper lip’.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I am tired of being told that a display of emotions or the appearance of tears at a funeral (or anywhere else, for that matter) is something to be ashamed of. That we must present a stoic façade at all times, or stand condemned – as George Osborne was – of everything ranging from emotional incontinence to hypocritical cynicism.
Honestly, it’s enough to make a grown man – or woman – cry.