Tag Archives: death

Lemons for Life … or Death

Background provided by MN: MN is an individual who grew up in the Maharashtra state of India, where they learned 4 languages including Sanskrit. They recently moved to America for further education.

Context: In Maharashtra, where MN is from, it is customary for a meal to be accompanied by a slice of lemon to be used as a condiment. The lemons in India are almost circular (spherical) so the nub is hard to find unless one is paying attention.

Main Piece Transcription of interview (contains the context of particular performance and additional background information):

MN: In Indian food, you keep salt and a piece of lemon so that you can put it in anything like a curry or even rice, make it flavorful. And, so whenever you want to cut the lemon you always … you know there’s a nub (gestures to emphasize point) … on the side … you always cut it perpendicular to that. You always keep it flat and cut it like that because when someone dies in the funeral process, that’s when you cut the lemon parallel to the nub. Ummm … that’s because when you prepare a plate for the person who has died the lemon should be cut in that direction. And … like … my mother used to scold me because I didn’t pay attention, but it’s like a bad omen to cut it like this because it’s like you are invoking the dead. There’s just a fun (pause) little (even longer pause) fact that I learned that … always cutting … so like … now, I’m like … I am very like …. Always cutting like this (gestures cutting motion with hands). So on the plates for the dead, that’s when you cut the lemon with the nub.”

Me: “Can I interrupt you for a second? I just want to know, I just want to know, Do you know where your mom learned it? And do you think that’s like …only … to … um where … you’re from?”

MN: This is some item … it’s not like some book, I think. It’s like some, like knowledge that everyone knows this … it’s like. She learned it from … It’s just something that she was taught … and I was taught.

Analysis: MN is very enthusiastic about sharing their culture. I find it quite fascinating that this specific funeral right is extremely detailed. It clearly demonstrates how much thought and effort loved ones dedicate when preparing for their departed loved ones. It is also interesting because this specific ritual is not written down but rather a tradition that is passed down in MN’s culture. The specific focus on the way lemons are cut reflects on MN’s character as well because they are considerate and detail-oriented. Although cutting lemons is commonplace, the symbolism for the Maharashtrian people is extraordinary. Lemons can bring some dishes to life by providing additional flavor and the juxtaposition between zest and the loss of life is also telling of MN’s culture.

Mockingbird Messager

A is 54 years old. She was born in Ft. Waldon, Florida and moved to Sylvania, Georgia at 2 years old. She’d been there all her life until last year (2021). A has a thick Southern accent that’s very pleasant to listen to. She told me about this omen of mockingbirds carrying messages of impending death.

“If you have a mockingbird that keeps coming up to your house trying to get in, it means someone close to you or in your family is going to pass soon… It’s just a message, there ain’t nothing you can do about it.”

For more about bird folklore in general see https://raptorresource.blogspot.com/2017/10/birds-in-superstition-and-folklore.html for Mockingbird specific folklore see Power, Cathy Kelly. “Thirteen ways of looking at a mockingbird: A collection of critical essays,” Chapter 9. Georgia State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1996. 9628838

Sweeping Dirt in Their Grave

A is 54 years old. She was born in Ft. Waldon, Florida and moved to Sylvania, Georgia at 2 years old. She’d been there all her life until last year (2021). A has a thick Southern accent that’s very pleasant to listen to. She told me about why I should be careful not to sweep over anyone’s feet while sweeping a floor.

“You don’t sweep over anyone’s feet while sweeping a floor because that means you’re sweeping dirt in their grave and that means that you’re wishing them dead, like a curse.”

Another version of this superstition says that sweeping under someone’s feet means they will never get married. For more on Southern broom related folklore, see https://www.weirdsouth.com/post/sweeping-superstitions

You shouldn’t walk across a grave

Background: The informant was a boy scout and eventually became an Eagle scout. He remembers a game he used to play with his fellow scouts that involved a superstition about graves and respect for the dead.

TR: The superstition that you shouldn’t walk across a grave. It is bad luck to walk across a grave. The scout troup would meet at a Methodist church and the meetings would be at night. We would play capture the flag a lot and across the property and graveyard in the dark and it would be spooky. I was hesitant to play, because you’re just not supposed to, disturb the dead, particularly at night. It’s all tied to respect for the dead. Back then when you are just trying to scare one another, it added another element, and it’s a long standing superstition that you don’t walk across graveyards, or play capture the flag and run. That seems even worse.

Me: If this is widely held, did you know of the superstition when you were doing it?

TR: Well yeah, it was well known that you aren’t supposed to do it and you’re walking across a body, a dead body.

TR: We thought about it, and had various levels of investment in the superstition, but I was not particularly invested. Some might have been more worried about incurring the wrath of a ghost or receive bad luck, but I didn’t think much of it. The idea of displeased ghosts became more believable playing at night than it would be playing during the day.

Me: Was it more believable at night?

TR: Definitely.

Me: If it was more believable, why did you do it?

TR: The fun of the game weighed in heavily, but the hesitation came from it being disrespectful. It is widely known that it is disrespectful.

Context of the performance: This was told to me over a Zoom call.

Thoughts: The informant considers this superstition just widely known–it’s not officially codified. It takes a sentiment, being respectful of the dead, and turns it into a superstition using an object–the gravestone representing the person it’s placed for. It also reveals children’s thought processes surrounding death, where the fun of the game outweighed any feeling of disrespect. The superstition and “spooky” nature added an element of fun to the game as the informant and his friends tried to scare each other, perhaps signifying young children’s non-confrontation of the taboo; they use the superstition to make the fun scary, but don’t think about the taboo of death that is incongruous with childhood.

Día de Los Muertos

The interlocutor (MP) grew up in Oaxaca, Mexico before immigrating to the US in his early twenties.

DESCRIPTION: (told in person)
(MP): “In Mexico, Día de Los Muertos is a famous holiday that celebrates your dead relatives. It’s on November 1st and 2nd, which technically makes it Los Días de Los Muertos but you and most people living here [in the United States] call it by the singular version.

Catholics families set up the ofrenda, the….the altar with pictures of their dead relatives they want to remember. It’s supposed to be in the house, kinda private, and they put stuff like comida y bebidas y floras (food, drinks, and flowers)… on it as like, an offering to them. Lots of panaderias (bakeries) and other merchants also sell those sugar skulls… los calaveras y pan de muerto (bread of the dead). For the ofrenda. It’s so that the souls of their loved ones can come visit them during these days, y’know?

They’ll also go to the graveyard and clean up their family’s graves and put offerings on that too. It’s a lot of prayer and celebration, since it’s supposed to be happy and all. I know big festivals and parades happen all over Mexico to celebrate too. In Oaxaca, we went to the one that happens at the Zocalo (Oaxaca City’s main square) and saw all the people dressed in costumes with the masks and the dancing and singing. It’s very family-oriented and a lot of fun.

Having celebrated Día de Los Muertos before, I was already quite familiar with some of the traditions the interlocutor mentioned. Despite this, it was still eye-opening to hear about the holiday from someone who actually grew up in the culture from which the holiday.

Traditions commemorating the death of loved ones are prevalent in most, if not all cultures; however, I think that Mexico’s celebration of Los Días de Los Muertos is unique because it celebrates death as a positive thing rather than something that means grief, loss, and pain. I think it’s amazing to hear about the humor, joy, and happiness that surrounds death in this tradition.