For some moments in life there are no words. ~David SeltzerI saw a tiny rose carried by her father and I wept. I saw a rose without thorns placed in a dirt hole and I wept. I saw the face of a rose yet to bloom sleeping in an earthen grave and I wept. I saw the rose covered with mother earth never again to see the light of day and I wept. I saw bouquets of incense burned and broken hearted men lay yellow and orange flowers on a rocky grave for a rose pruned prematurely and we wept. I saw the father standing alone over the grave of his daughter weeping salty tears onto the parched earth and I found myself praying that moisture deposited in heartfelt love would breathe life back into the sleeping rose. We all wept for the passing of this tiny rose.
The lot of us, men all, father’s most, talked in hushed circles awaiting, more accurately dreading, the beginning of her final ceremony. Having never attended an Indian funeral, I didn’t know what to expect. So, I dressed in my finest as if I were attending a funeral in my own culture where everyone shows up in clothes reserved for funerals and job interviews.
Being unfamiliar with the local rituals, I asked my Indian friends how this would play out. I wanted to be able to seamlessly go with the flow and not cause a disturbance. To my surprise, my friends did not know how the ceremony would unfold for none, at least none with whom I conversed, had attended the funeral of a child that moved from life to after life just two days past the first anniversary of a glorious birth, a birth pregnant with the promise of an unlimited future.
There were no women present, not a one. In this culture, the women remain at home mourning the loss of the loved one. The men, alone, handle the final interment or cremation. Since this was a child under five, burial rather than cremation was chosen.
The father arrived in the back seat of a car and emerged gently cradling his rose in arms that one year previous cradled her in birth. This was my second moment of shock on this sad occasion. The first being that her resting place was not beautifully manicured and decorated with flowers. It was a moonscape, an uneven field with scattered rocks and the occasional human bone bleaching in the sun atop the grayish soil. The sparse vegetation was becoming sparser under the lips of nibbling goats.
I did not know this child still my heart ached at her loss.
This second shock came about because funerals in my culture are sanitized. We hire funeral homes to manage the deceased. They clean them up, dress them up, put them in an expensive box for ritual display and coordinate the final interment far from the tearful eyes of the beloved. We don’t generally see the casket being laid into the earth. We leave it in the funeral chapel and those we pay finish the process.
This ritual was raw, visceral.
As my friend walked barefooted from the car to the grave site, I could not look at the child in his arms, could not let my eyes fall on the sleeping rose for, if I did, I feared the horror of a sleeping infant would seer an indelible image into the back of my eyes and I might never stop crying, I might never again be able to claim ignorant bliss that sometimes children do not get to experience the four score and ten laid out for most of us at birth.
My cultural norms dictate an expensive casket lined with finest silk built to last the ages. For this rose, there was no casket, nothing to shield my eyes from seeing the infant that valiantly fought a tumor yet, in the end, did not win. The father laid his rose in the shallow grave, a mere two foot deep hole whose bottom was lined with salt. I looked toward the grave, at the back of the many heads bowed in reverence for the sad occasion.
For an instant, the heads of the men parted. In that instant, for the briefest moment, I saw the precious face peering out from the blanket. Her eyes closed tight. Her skin gray. Her face angelic. That moment will be with me for a long time. In that moment, not only did I see this child’s face but I also saw the faces of my children, my grandchild, along with the thought of grandchildren yet to come flash before my eyes. The pain grabbed at my heart squeezing more tears from my eyes. How lucky a man I am to have an intact family.
Prayers were said over the grave, a gentle murmur of words in a language I did not understand. The emotions, the agony on the men’s faces, the tears rolling down their cheeks spoke to me for emotions expressed transcend the nuances of culture.
Unfortunately, we humans allow ourselves to keep separated from our fellow man when we see others as their culture rather than a product of their culture. We tend to exist solely in a world shaped by and, too often remain constrained by the cultural norms into which we were born. Too often, our religion, our belief system, our skin, our nationality are seen as reasons for division, to keep apart, to create the us versus them plaguing society.
Most fail to comprehend the common thread that unites us across all color and cultural differences. The core human is a cauldron of emotions, emotions felt by all men, emotions frequently expressed as culture dictates. Still, a tear of sorrow is a tear of sorrow no matter if we are black or white or yellow, Hindu or Muslim or Atheist, man or woman, yin or yang.
Of all the emotions, the great equalizers are grief and compassion for they go hand in hand, are, I believe, absolutely fundamental to humanness. These two emotions more than any other bind all people as human, transcend any arbitrary category that would differentiate us. At the core, we are all made of the same emotions.
In the here and now, this man was not just a colleague, not just a friend. He was not just an Indian and I was not just an American. We were brothers linked by his grief and my attempt at compassion, brothers who just happened to be born half a world apart.
One by one, the men tossed a handful of dirt into the grave. I could not make my self participate. My feet could not move for fear I would see her face again. Then the shovel came out and filled the grave with dirt and rocks covering the rose completely, totally. The scraping of the shovel caused another wave of tears to erupt from my heart.
The last addition was a few large rocks. These were not the fancy, granite grave stones we have in the US that are carved with the person’s name and the dates bookending their lives. These were just two big, non descript rocks. On top of the rocks, garlands of marigolds was laid.
Bouquets of incense were lit and placed into the soft ground around the grave. We were each given a flower, a marigold, to lay on the grave, this time, I forced myself to participate and, with a shaking hand, laid the flower with the others on the grave. This signaled the end of our participation and we all walked away from the grave site. When the father came to us, we attempted to console our grieving brother but this is a grief that is inconsolable.
A few minutes later, the father returned to the grave, stood alone, slumped shoulders, body shaking and wept tears of deep sorrow. It’s a haunting image I can still see when I close my eyes.