Some days remain etched within the mind forever. I think yesterday was one I will never forget.
I’ve only attended a few funerals in my life. None have been for people I was particularly close to, but all were moving in their own way. I’m sure everyone remembers the first time they saw a dead body – that strange twist of fear and morbid fascination and loss. I always felt so uncomfortable at the outpouring of emotion. As a teenager, I felt confused at what I was supposed to do. Should I try and cry, even if I don’t feel it? Would people appreciate it if I try and be lighthearted? Am I supposed to comfort people, or do they want to be left alone?
Yesterday’s ceremony was perhaps one of the most cathartic, moving experiences I’ve ever had. Close to eight hundred people gathered at the North London crematorium to pay last respects. One hundred and fifty crowded the small, sunlit chapel, whilst the remainder watched outside on TV screens. I sat with a few friends in a corner behind the plinth where the coffin would eventually sit. We were there with harmonium, kartals, mridanga, flute and violin to lead the major portion of the ceremony – continuous kirtan. Several family members gave beautiful speeches, glorifying the unique qualities of their father, uncle and brother. They spoke of his generous, unfailingly open heart and his humility. His desire to serve others and his lighthearted, loving nature were celebrated by so many. From my vantage point at the front of the room, I could see heads nodding as they spoke, each a moving testament to the truth of their words. The time line of his life was recited. It almost felt as if we walked through a gallery, examining images and memories, and fragments of a life, mapping his journey up to the present moment. It can be sobering to hear a life summarised. One life seems so short – a fluttering rush of days and months, like a moth falling towards a flame. But even a short life is glorious when lived with integrity and substance.
After speeches the front and back doors were thrown open, the March wind gusting in with the shafts of sunlight. A non stop line of people passed through, holding flower petals which they placed at his feet as a sign of respect. The kirtan began, and the sound carried up to the high ceiling. Watching every person pass, I was captivated by the range of emotions on each face. So many kinds of tears – of love, of pain and loss, of joy. Some were overwhelmed and wept uncontrollably, whilst others looked on his face with a steady gaze and peaceful heart. Children passed, looking dazed or distressed, and teenagers, trying to control emotions they never expected. Old friends, colleagues, saffron clad monks. Perhaps the worst to see were his parents, saying goodbye to a cherished son. They lovingly touched his face and walked away from the coffin with faltering steps. I sat watching, singing and playing my violin – trying to stay present to my task but finding tears streaming down my face at unexpected moments. They dripped down my nose, falling all over my violin. I looked over at my friends to see them crying too. My dear friend sang with her eyes closed, only pausing once in two continuous hours because emotion overwhelmed her.
Despite so many tears, as the ceremony drew closer to the end, an indescribable feeling of joy began to rise within the room. Voices called with such love and focus. The sound was heavenly in a rare way. With an irresistible rise and fall, the mridanga drum picked up tempo, and a few men began to dance. They stood beside the coffin, gazing at their old friend with such love, arms raised, swaying and stepping in time. More joined in and soon almost everyone was standing and moving to the beat – even those looking on from the rear balcony. I wondered if it was disrespectful to dance at a funeral? It certainly seemed incongruous in the white walled, Victorian chapel. But no one cared – in those last moments, all sounds were of loving prayer – every tear stained face decorated with a smile.
Then silence fell, and my Dad recited the final prayers from the ancient Upanishads. ‘Let this temporary body be burnt to ashes, and let the air of life be merged with the totality of air. Now, O my Lord, please remember all my sacrifices, and because You are the ultimate beneficiary, please remember all that I have done for You.’ We repeated the words together, speaking one final prayer that described the glory of kirtan as the garden-like oasis for the weary soul. Then with the press of a button, it was all over. Vacuums were quickly whipped out to clean away the petals and everyone was ushered out.
May we all lead lives rich with love and service, that flower in such a glorious end.