The Interviewer will be referred to as ‘I’, and the informant as ‘N’. Explanations and translations for Hindi words will be italicised and in parentheses. The Informant is a 67-year-old Punjabi father, raised primarily in Gujarat.
N: At funerals or… wakes, before the cremation, we all wear white. The body is washed and then put on the pyre. Once the body is, is put on the pyre, the two biggest toes are tied together, and all… like the nose, the ears, all orifices are stuffed, and you put haldi (turmeric) on the forehead of a woman, and vibuti (ash) on the forehead if it’s a man, and a garland of flowers (marigold) is put around their neck. Then, the eldest son of that person, as part of the ritual and to signify departure of the soul, what he does is take an earthen pot, fills it up with water. That pot, that water is supposed to signify life. The earthen pot is full of life. He takes one circle around the pyre and then, at the beginning of the second circle, he drops it from his right shoulder where he had held it, to the ground. The earthen pot breaks, the water flows out, and that is supposed to… that is to signify the person is… his life, his spirit has left him. Then only can the pyre be lit.
I: What if the person does not have a son?
N: Then the daughter does it if permitted within that, within their family or community’s customs and she wants to, or the next of kin, closest male relative does it. The ritual is to signify departure of life from that body, so it can get reincarnated again.
As the informant states, this particular ritual with the earthen pot is to signify and aid the departure of life from this body, and I think this is especially important to consider while taking into account the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Therefore, this is not only to help the life out of one body, that in itself helps it into the next. The toes are tied, probably because of rigor mortis and sudden jerks, and the orifices are sealed because bodies have a tendency to bloat up. When it comes to the question about the eldest son, I wanted to ask that because I was aware that oftentimes, women weren’t really allowed to be an active part of funeral processions, and I was curious to know how that has changed as time has passed. There is no one solid answer, because in some families and communities, women are allowed to carry out the rituals, but in others, it is still seriously frowned upon, and in other-others, it is just initially discouraged.