Informant: My grandmother never allowed us to sweep, like sweep the floor or clean the house in any way, until the person, the visitor, who left the house gets to their destination. So for example if someone is going to a different city and we know they’re going to get there by 2 o’clock, we are not allowed to sweep or clean until 2.
Interviewer: Would you check in with your departed guest to make sure or –
Informant: No, there were no phones back then so you’d just have to guess like “Oh they should be there by now. They must have reached the place. Now we can sweep.” It’s because – the thing is, when you have a dead body in the house, for example, someone died in your family, and when they take the body away for cremation, then you sweep the house after the body. So that’s why a person leaving, and you sweeping right after, that’s, in a way, implying that they’re dying or that they will die. It’s just bad luck that you don’t want to mess around with.
Interviewer: Wait, so you said that after someone dies, you sweep the house after their body is cremated?
Informant: After their body leaves to be cremated. Think about it as a hygienic thing. There’s a body lying in the house for a certain number of hours and you have to get the body ready. And in the old days you couldn’t really preserve the body as well so they used to cremate pretty quickly so a dead body would be pretty unclean. So to sweep after a guest, you wouldn’t want to imply that they’re, you know, dead.
The informant is my mother, an Indian woman who was born and raised in northern India (Delhi) and moved to the US over two decades ago. This tradition of folklore is something that practiced back in India but doesn’t really strictly follow as much in America. It’s just something that everyone in her family did so she regards at as one of many rules of life.
I am back home due to shelter-in-place. One night when my family was sitting in the study I asked my mom if she had any folklore samples I could add to the archive. This was one of the ones she shared with me.
This makes sense to me because a surprising amount of Indian traditions have to do with the idea of cleanliness and purity. And there are a great deal of Indian superstitions that have to deal with treating people as you would treat a different class of people (whether that’s literal class or living people vs dead people, etc.). So this tradition seems to be a natural amalgamation of the two. Sweeping quickly after a body is done when it’s a dead body in question as the body degrades fairly quickly after death and you want to ensure your house is clean. So sweeping quickly after a guest invites bad luck on them or implies they are unclean, so you only want to do so once they have safely made it back to their home.