Washing the dead is quite a common tradition in many parts of the world, one I have participated in twice within my own family. It is a strange bewildering feeling and I am struggling to put it into words and phrase it properly to give it justice. I am just going back to that period of time when I did participate in that ritual and have to admit that I cried like a baby.
The first feeling is once of utter regret. You are washing the body but every motion you are making reminds you of things you could have done. Clipping the nails and you think of the times those finger tips gently caressed your hair and held you in their arms, or how those cheeks would dimple with laughter when they would smile at you. But no more, the flesh is utterly cold and hard. There is no life in those limbs and they will never do the things that you remember them for. They will never listen to your words again. Your mind is full of the things you could have said to them but didn't.
The second feeling is helplessness in the face of death. I know facetiously that death and taxes comes to all men, but being actually faced with the evidence of death is pretty startling. All the medical science, the hopes and dreams, nothing can stand in the way of somebody dying. An old quote goes something along the lines of “a boy becomes a man when his father dies”. I do not remember where I read this, but I think this is a vital piece in the journey of growing up. Staring at a corpse forces you to recognise your own mortality. I was a young lion before that, invincible and indomitable. But the fact that I was seeing the corpses and washing them and dressing them and touching them and shedding tears over them helped me grow up a bit more.
The next feeling was puzzlement. Why are dead bodies heavier than live bodies? Strange how scientific thoughts crop into your head at the strangest of times. The way I figured it out was that living bodies fill their lungs with air, and when you try to lift them, they also can assist you. Also, the limbs move and its easier to lift. Dead bodies are pure mass, nothing else, thus they are heavier than living beings.
One time I was with a priest who was chanting Sanskrit shlokas over the dead body. And during the entire night that I was awake, I managed to have quite a long conversation about the religious significance and other aspects of death. I think that helped in putting some things in perspective, such as what one leaves behind? And what one looks forward to? What are one's actions during one's life time? How about one's name and children? All these aspects are quite interesting. Leave aside the actual religious bits, they differ depending on who you speak to and which religion you belong to. The particular shlokas that were being intoned related to Garuda Purana. I have to admit that my memory is a bit weak, but here’s a link for those who are interested to read about what one religious Hindu book – the Garuda Purana - says about death.
Finally, I am always concerned about why the Doms (the men who work in the cremation ghats and areas) are treated so disgustingly within Indian society. Do they not perform one's last rites? Look after one's bones and tell one's relatives how one is going to pass over into the next life? Surely they should be treated with respect? But no, they are really treated horribly, at par with scavengers. We sometimes are seriously screwed up in our minds, talking about ritual purity and bathing away to glory while spitting in the street and indulging in corruption. Bah!.
Why am I talking about this? This is because I read about Saudi Arabian Women who wash dead bodies and the trials and tribulation that they have to go through. Read the article, it is quite interesting to find out about how these women are treated and how their own dead bodies are treated. Here is another very emotional story of another episode of washing the dead body.