Friday, February 25, 2011

Exposure to Death Practices

For most people death is not a comfortable subject. However, it is an inevitable part of life…well, lack thereof I guess. In the recent weeks, I have attended many funerals for various people to whom I am somewhat connected. Most of these funerals took place before my own Grandma’s death- but I needed personal time to process that before I could distribute this blog. (On a side note, thanks for all the cards and prayers. I feel very lucky to have been able to have had my Grandma in my life. The night my Dad called, I was able to snuggle extra tight with the blanket she made me 22 years ago and say a little prayer of gratitude for being able to call such a wonderful woman my Grandma. The next few months, I will live out her passion and love for people as I finish this year out strong.)

During my fieldwork senior year of college, I became very interested in different faiths and cultural practices related to death, as I worked at a Jewish nursing home. I was fascinated by their customs related to death and have since taken interest in different religious and cultural beliefs surrounding death.

Since my work is primarily with children, I didn’t come into this year expecting to be exposed to many death practices in India. While I feel it’s a little morbid to say I enjoyed attending the funerals, I am grateful that I was able to experience this and learn about the different religious and cultural rituals here in India.

The most recent funeral I attended was for a family of the Hindu faith. While I had watched a Hindu funeral on TV, experiencing it first-hand made my understanding more clear. Like other faiths, Hindus have viewing hours at the house the day after the person has died. The body was laid out on a wooden bed-frame covered in a plain white sheet. Friends come to the house and bring flower arrangements which they place directly on the body. The mourning people gather around the body, singing songs and paying respects to the body for the last time. Particular to the Hindu faith, men will remain outside of the house while women sit inside, around the body. After several hours of singing and having friends come to the house, the body is carried outside and placed on a cut up mango tree. The oldest son of the family is expected to cut down a mango tree from the backyard and prepare the spot where the body will be cremated. Ghee (or melted butter) is sprinkled on the white sheet covering the body and the body is then lit on fire. The body will burn for a few hours as people standby. A couple days later, family members will take a few bones from the ashes and go to the temple to pray before throwing the bones into a sacred river.

The Christian tradition is similar and shares many of the same traditions. However, instead of the body being laid on a bed, it is placed in a simple wooden casket (I think Americans should adopt this simplicity as the wooden box is all the body needs.) All dead bodies in India are displayed so the face can be seen one last time, no matter the condition. Indian-Christians also place flower arrangements directly on the body. Little to no receiving line exists like in American culture.

After a period of singing in the person’s house, the body is transported (usually in ambulance vehicles) to the person’s church. I have found the funeral services to be very similar to our culture’s except for the photographing element. Right before the body is carried out, family members pose with the body as someone takes pictures. During this time, family and friends view the body one last time often caressing their face or kissing their forehead. At one funeral, I even witnessed a person lift the body up out of the casket to give the man a kiss. These pictures are very special to families and I have had many students show me pictures of their deceases loved ones (You may imagine that at first I was a bit caught off guard and even a bit creeped out. What is an appropriate comment in that situation?)

The burial of the body takes place the same day as the viewing (most cases this is the day after the death) and most people will attend the burial after the funeral service. Once the burial has taken place, tea and snacks are provided. It has been interesting to watch the grieving period unfold. Emotions can be high during the viewing and funeral service, but after the burial, life returns to its normal pace.

Two of the 5 funerals I have attended have been for a parent of girls at the school. These were particular difficult and sad situations. I found the school’s support as well as the support the girls provided for their classmates to be very touching. At times I have felt very bad about attending these funerals, as I felt I was using the deceased loved one as an educational experience. However, with my own Grandma’s death, these experiences allowed me to process her death as being far from home often makes is hard to deal with the realities.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The meaning of Spoken English

“Spoken English, what does that mean you teach?” A very understandable question when I tell people what I am doing here in India. I have found the education system in India to be very different from our methods of teaching in the United States. To begin with there is a lot more respect for teachers in India. Students are taught never to question a teacher; the information she teaches is correct, period. Additionally, very little of what the students are taught utilizes their right-brain, or creativity side. Even in the craft classes they are told what to draw and how to draw it leaving little room for imagination.

Having said this, I try to prepare creative activities that will allow the students’ to think on their own and use their imagination. At first, there was much hesitancy and I really had to encourage and help the girls tap into their creative side. However, as the days have gone by, I have slowly witnessed them crawling out of their shells. Some days my lessons work better than others but I try to create games that will force the students to talk and use English. Group works well as they have more confidence to speak in a group however, I often wonder if this is the most beneficial for them individually. I have found listening activities and speaking activities to be the most challenging but also the most rewarding for me…if they work. Overall, I try to vary the activities we do- using my creativity to help them utilize their creativity while building their confidence and English skills.

Here are sample Haiku’s my Standard 8 (8th grade) wrote:

We do all the days
For health peoples runs the way
Without this health will loose

Work hard together
Unity is strength
There will be success

Indian eyes (not quite the pattern but the creativity was great!!)
On a small white road
A pitch black sparkle shines
Running all around