In all communities, cultures, religions, countries, literature across the world it has been—without exception since times immemorial—considered important to die a “good death”. Why is this so?  And what is the difference between a “good death” and a “bad death”? A death is a death as someone pointed out, but does a “good” or a “bad” death affect the soul? Generally, a “good death” is believed to be one where a person dies at peace and in peace, in a familiar place, cared for and surrounded by family members, loved ones or other care givers. A “bad death” is regarded as one where a person dies an agonising or troubled or violent death and generally undergoes suffering close to or at the time of death, could be through a painful illness, emotional shock suicide, murder, hanging, an accident and so on.

It is well known that those who die a “good” death find it easier to ascend to the higher realms whereas those who die a “bad death” always struggle and find it very difficult to move on, which is why special rituals are prescribed for them. But what if there is no one to perform those rituals? Dying a lonely death, unmourned by anyone falls in the “bad” death category and has always been classed as the worst form of death and this is perhaps the reason why  professional mourners or moirologists,  as they are known, go far back in time.

In ancient Egypt, two non-related mourners would attend funerals as representatives of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys. “Their role was to pull their hair out to bestow the energy needed for the deceased to reach the afterlife. Professional mourners were also recorded in China in a New York Times article from 1877 that refers to ‘customs in the Orient’ for ‘hired mourners’.” According to Wikipedia, “Mentioned in the Bible, the occupation is widely invoked in literature, from the Ugaritic epics of early centuries BC to modern poetry. Held in high esteem in some cultures and times, the practice was vilified in others. Female professional mourners also, called Rudaali, were common in many parts of India, especially in the Western Indian state of Rajasthan.” Over the years, there have been many films, books, TV shows on professional mourners.

Now, in many countries agencies and companies are part of a growing industry of providing professional mourners. In “Rent A Mourner” in Essex in UK, for example, “professional, discreet mourners are provided to attend funerals, make small talk and mourn the passing of beloved friends and family  who are not their own”. “Rent A Mourner” founder Ian Robinson told UK’s Daily Telegraph that he’d been inspired by professional mourners who are a mainstay in Asia and the Middle East. According to the “Rent A Mourner’s” website, professional mourners “help increase visitors to funerals where there may be a low turnout expected.” The low turnout of mourners could be because the person who has died is the last amongst friends and family, or relatives may have moved away or lost contact. Distance and cost are also factors than can make it difficult for people to attend a funeral. Some time ago, the Daily Mail carried a story on how Chinese families are hiring out-of-work actors to cry at funerals when relatives are too busy to attend.

It is well known that those who die a “good” death find it easier to ascend to the higher realms whereas those who die a “bad death” always struggle.

Amongst countries, with one of the fastest aging populations in the world, Japan’s “kodokushi” or lonely death phenomenon, with the lonely people being discovered dead after a long time, has acquired very disturbing proportions. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, there were some 3,700 “unaccompanied deaths” in Japan in 2013. However, other experts estimate the number is nearer 30,000 a year.

The Japanese government says there are some 700,000 ‘hikikomori’ in Japan—young people who are completely isolated and afraid to reintegrate into society. Yuichi Hattori, a psychologist points out that these people will increase the numbers of “kodokushi” deaths in the future. By implication, this would add to the difficulties in such a soul’s journey to the other world. However, elsewhere psychologists are asking if it’s really such a bad thing to be alone when you die. “Sometimes they die in a way that suggests they prefer to be alone as they are coming to the end of their lives.”

Incidentally, over the last four or five years, I and my friends have made funeral arrangements several times for the parents of NRI’s who thought it was pointless returning to India just to conduct a funeral and other ceremonies, and that gives us a glimpse of the shape of things to come in these increasingly matter-of-fact times where the meaning of love and family bonds is also changing at digital speed. “Look”, one of them, an only child, told me in a very matter of fact way, “mom’s gone and she’s not going to come back if I come back. So just get her cremated and do whatever else is required and let me know the cost. Distribute or sell the furniture, her belongings etc, and put up the house for sale.” But will her soul be at peace, I asked him? “That’s her look out”, he responded. Such cases make it obvious that instead of two there are now three kinds of deaths: “good deaths”, “bad deaths” and “indifferent deaths”. As it turned out in the “indifferent death” of the NRI’s mother, her soul was not at peace, but that’s a story for another column.

Many people find the idea of profiteering from death through professional mourners or making online or long distance arrangements distasteful. But it is very much a reality today. And who knows, in these fast paced, solutions to attending funerals too may soon see an online boom. Don’t have time to attend a funeral? Never mind, you can sign in your attendance on an online funeral cum condolence site. The departed soul, being digitally savvy, would presumably be happy with your online funeral participation and gain strength from such digital expressions of caring to move on to the other world. But only time will tell whether this presumption and other similar assumptions are correct or whether we are condemning many of those who have died ‘indifferent deaths’ to join the ranks of unhappy souls.  

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