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.
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.