Musings on Death

I got a call from my aunt last night. She invited P and I to my maternal grandmother’s birthday party at the end of October.

Aunt: “Grandma doesn’t really want to have anything special, but you know, she is getting up there in age, so we should all get together to celebrate. Grandma’s not going to be around forever.”

Later on my Grandmother called, “Did you hear this nonsense? They want to have a birthday party for me. I’m getting too old for this. Anyway, maybe if I was turning a ‘special year’ like 90 or something, but I think this is all very silly. But, your aunt said that we should all get together as a family during happy times, and not just for funerals.”

Maybe my family is just weird, I don’t know, but we’ve always been  candid about this kind of stuff. Death has never been a taboo topic to talk about. In 2007/8 my paternal grandparents passed away within a few months of each other and I feel like most of us knew my Grandmother wasn’t going to be around much longer after Grandpa passed away. She even spoke like she wasn’t going to be around. We didn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, wish death on her, but I think we were all realistic about it… however I think P found this a bit appalling.

Even when I got off the phone last night he had a comment, “I don’t know why you guys have to talk like that. It’s disturbing.” I don’t think we were being morbid, it is a bit lighthearted and harmless, but also acknowledging reality. Grandma isn’t going to be around forever, so why not celebrate now?

This is a cultural difference I’ve noticed between (at least) my family and P’s. I have to be careful sometimes, because I’ve learned over the years that talk about death, even as a joke, bothers him.

For instance, when discussing getting married sooner rather than later, I’d love to say, “My grandmother and your grandfather [Kakabua] are getting quite old. Wouldn’t it be nice to get married earlier so that they can attend?”  but I know he wouldn’t appreciate my point, no matter how valid, because it insinuates that they might die in the next few years. Meanwhile I was excited to go to Nepal and see Kakabua again. I met him four years ago, and at the time he was already in his 80s, I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance to meet him again and was really happy to do so in June. I don’t think I should mention that to P either. Any talk about or around death seems to be off topic.

I was mentioning this to AS today:

Me: “Is this a common thing among Nepalis, having it be a bit taboo to talk about death, or do you think it is just a P thing?”

AS: “Talking about death is taboo, and more so if you are talking about your grandparents or old age people. It is thought to bring ill luck to the person. There is a saying—sometimes people say something and it happens for real, so death is unspoken. Even if someone is in the hospital bed, no one will utter the word death. It is out of respect, love or maybe superstition.”

I can respect that. Talking casually about death in front of P bothers him like people talking about weight in front of my family bothers them.

A pint of beer and bit of reminising during the "Irish wake"

A pint of beer and bit of reminising during the "Irish wake"

Actually this reminds me of when my paternal grandparents passed away. My grandfather died in early December. The Nepalis in the neighborhood had found out shortly afterwards, and they came by to see how I was doing. That night I didn’t feel like making dinner, so I ordered a pizza, and I got a few “looks” while I was eating. I then remembered that in Nepali culture it is common to refrain from certain foods—meats, garlic, onions, salt, etc for a mourning period (usually 13+ days depending). Here I was eating a pizza, the day I found out about his death, which probably had all sorts of taboo elements for someone who just lost a paternal grandparent.

Then when we traveled back to New York for the funeral, the night before my father’s family did what they called an “Irish wake,” meaning we all went out for drinks, and reminisced about my grandfather over glasses of wine and bottles of beer. It was therapeutic, particularly for my father and his siblings, and it was nice for us cousins to hear different stories from our parents’ childhood.

When I was asked about the funeral when I got home, there was again a bit of a shocked reaction–alcohol is another taboo during the mourning period in Nepali culture. They were also surprised that we celebrated Christmas that year… usually Nepali families refrain from celebrating major holidays for a year after a family member’s death. Here we were, three weeks later, although our holiday was “toned down” everyone’s feeling on the matter was, “Grandpa would have wanted it this way” since Christmas was always kind of special for him–his birthday was on Christmas day.

My grandmother passed away during the “epic family visit” in June of 2008. P’s family was both very respectful, but also very curious about my family’s customs associated with death—wearing black, burying the dead, the wake and the funeral, the “Irish wake” that happened again (hmm, maybe we didn’t tell them about that), and probably most shocking of all… P and I brought home a cooler full of meat from the funeral. I know this probably sounds weird even by American standards, but my grandmother loved the caribou and antelope that my dad would hunt, and had quite a bit of it in her freezer when she passed, so my dad took some back and gave us some because he knew P liked it. J Phupu took one look in the cooler and said, “yes, our cultures are very different” since many people abstain from meat for a duration of time after a close family member’s passing.

Anyway, I hate to sound morbid on a Friday afternoon, but I was thinking about these things after the conversation with my aunt last night and P’s reaction, and I thought some of you might find it interesting. We don’t talk about death all the time (I swear!), but it definitely comes up in conversation occasionally.

Which reminds me, speaking of death, I read an interesting blog post a while back about a tourist at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. She basically wrote about how she felt uncomfortable as a tourist at the cremation grounds. You might find it interesting, as I did.

5 responses to “Musings on Death

  1. thanks for the link and the comment. like you, i find it interesting to read about personal reactions to such a universal thing.

  2. Aditya doesn’t like morbid jokes either, but we’ve never really discussed why he doesn’t like them (other than that he doesn’t). Perhaps that’s all there is to it… but I think I’ll point him towards this post and see what he has to say.

  3. I realize that this post is older, but I can’t resist commenting on it since my nepali husband and I have the same issue. My family is extremely open about death, and not only that, but by nature I love black comedy and morbidity. That said, you can imagine some of the discomfort and reactions that my husband has to my family and humor.

    ex) At Christmas we were all joking about death, and how my parents should never be given into my care because I hide their false teeth and give them random medicine, which is completely untrue, but we all laughed nonetheless. My parents are also fundamentalist Christians, as am I, so my mom was all like, “It’s no big deal. Toss my body in the flower bed and I’ll see you in heaven.” To us, it’s all very normal, and I have to admit that we’re not big into mourning when someone actually does die. There’s no weeping or consoling, and my poor nepali husband having to deal with all that.

    I do wonder if it’s the same with injuries as well, and maybe you can shed some light on that, because I have no one else to ask. My brother-in-law sprained his ankle while my husband and I were at the theater seeing Dark Knight, and he got angry at me for being casual and flippant about it. He even tried to drive all the way to the middle of another state over this ankle, and I was like, “It’s just an ankle. We can call him tomorrow.” Even his parents in Nepal were keeping themselves up worrying. I’m wondering if this behavior is just my husband’s family or Nepali in general.

    • Hi Janessa,

      So I asked around and got two different responses about the ankle situation.

      Response 1:
      1) Nepalese people here is US are more anxious about any sort of health
      issues (small or big) compared to being in Nepal because of issues like
      a)high cost associated with medical treatment; b) health insurance; c) most
      of the people have WORK which if they miss more than a week, they are
      likely to loose it;

      2) People (family and friends) far away from you are always more anxious
      and paranoid about the situation because they do not really understand the
      actually gravity of the case

      3)Your brother is more like your parnets/guardian when you are away from
      homeland, it was obvious for the person to be worried about his brother…

      Response 2: (from someone who has been in US a lot longer)
      It was a bit of an over-reaction, but maybe he didn’t know how bad the ankle situation was.

      My response: I can really see response 1, answer 3 being a big issue. Luckily P’s younger brother hasn’t had too much trouble health wise, but I remember once he mentioned he was feeling like he had the flu to his parents at home. They started calling and calling us to make sure U was okay. U was really fine, just had a cold, but parents being far away, they don’t really know and they get concerned, and in turn expect P as the older brother to keep an eye out.

      So in the end it was probably a mixture… a bit of an over-reaction, but maybe with some familial pressure to keep each other safe while far away.

  4. That does make sense, and thank you for asking around. Sometimes seeing from someone else’s view isn’t easy when your family background is totally different.

    My family’s view: get better or die but shut-up while you do it. lol. Ah, the joys of family.

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