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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Chp 495. Mizo Customary Funeral Rites


This post is mainly for my non-Mizo visitors who might be interested in knowing how a Mizo funeral takes place. Today, one can easily learn about other cultures without having to experience it personally, thanks to technology and crowd sourcing, and here is my contribution to the online community. Hope this also serves as a tribute to dad who passed away on February 9, 2014.

Having been brought up outside Mizoram, I’ve been to a few funerals across India, even Christian funerals, but our Mizo funerals are quite different.

In Mizoram, the YMA (Young Mizo Association) plays a very important role in our society. The YMA is the largest NGO in Mizoram. I’m a member of YMA. Although it is not compulsory to join the NGO, almost every Mizo becomes a member of the YMA around the age of 14. Before that, the youngsters are known as “YMA chhang” where they are taught the values of the YMA, preparing them for the challenges ahead once they become a part of the YMA.

The motto of the YMA is “Help the needy”, a principle every Mizo lives by (or tries to live by). In our vocabulary, we have a term called “chhiatni thatni” which means “In times of sorrow and joy”. In such times, YMA volunteers turn up in huge numbers to celebrate or mourn with the affected family.

Every locality in Mizoram has a YMA unit and it is divided into sections for better micro management, based on residential locations (housing clusters). In some localities, the YMA sections are named after Mizo heroes - Taitesena section, Chawngbawla section, Vanapa section etc.

[Click on all photos to enlarge]


[Pic courtesy: Didini Tochhawng]

In our locality Chaltlang (above pic, which I roughly highlighted in red), our YMA is divided into six sections and they are simply named as - Y1, Y2, M1, M2, A1 and A2 sections. I’m a member of M1 section. In times of grief like a funeral, even though every YMA member of that locality is expected to volunteer and help out, more stress is laid on the YMA members of that particular section the bereaved family belongs to. For example, if there was a death in Chaltlang, say, Y2 section, and more YMA members from other sections like M1, M2, A1 sections turned up than Y2 members, it would be extremely embarrassing for Y2 members. Hence peer pressure too sometimes ensures that the spirit of the YMA lives on.

So what exactly does our Mizo community and YMA do when it comes to a funeral?

In my earlier blog post “Dear Dad, goodbye” I wrote about staying with dad in the hospital for two weeks until his last breath on 9th Feb. Friends, family friends and neighbors visited us daily, but not in the name of YMA. It was still a personal affair then and many of our relatives stayed with us in the ICU corridor during the days…





…and some even stayed with me in a private ward during the nights.



On 9th Feb, 2014, 8:40 AM, dad breathed his last. Relatives, friends and neighbors rushed to the hospital immediately, and from there onwards, the YMA took charge.

Below are some of our Mizo funeral customs, with a huge involvement of the YMA.



1. YMA Mic puan (Public Announcement)

As soon as dad’s death was confirmed, relatives and friends came to the hospital and helped us transport his body in an ambulance back to our house.









Meanwhile, back home, the YMA announced dad’s demise via loudspeakers. All six YMA sections of our locality, one after the other, made the announcement on loudspeakers that everybody in our locality (and people from neighboring locality) could hear. The announcement included dad’s name, time of death, and the YMA section he belonged to.

Earlier, such announcements used to include the cause of death too, but that had recently been discontinued because it sometimes discouraged or worried other people with similar ailment and made them and their relatives unnecessarily anxious.

By the time we reached home in the ambulance, there were already a good 50 to 100 YMA members, most of them from our M1 section, gathered at our house and clearing our furniture (known as “in sing sak” which I will explain more in detail below at point 5). Black flags were already raised by the YMA in front of our house and others were preparing the YMA “Information board”…





The moment I got down from the ambulance, YMA members swooped inside the van and carried dad’s body inside our house. Our locality YMA leaders and my friends consoled me and stayed by my side.


2. Funeral Program Announcement

The YMA loud speaker announcement also included the date and time of dad’s funeral service. According to our Mizo custom, if somebody died before 9 AM, the funeral was to be conducted on that same day, around 1-2 PM. If the person died after 9 AM, then there was a “mitthi tlaivar” (a wake, where YMA members kept vigil till the break of dawn and the funeral was held the following day).

Dad passed away at 8:40 AM, so technically his funeral was to be held the same day, but my sister Mazami who’s a senior lecturer at University of Lancashire, UK, immediately booked her flight tickets for home when she heard the news. We asked the YMA for an extension so she could see dad’s body before he was buried. The YMA leaders of our locality had a closed door meeting to discuss this, and finally they told us they would wait a day.

I am extremely grateful to our locality YMA for giving us one more day. A “mitthi tlaivar” takes away a lot of energy and stress from YMA volunteers and such requests are usually not granted but they made an exception in our case. Thank you Chaltlang Khua YMA.


3. Thuthleng leh bungraw lak (gathering of household essentials)

Every YMA section has a “bungraw in” which is a warehouse for YMA items like benches, tea cups, tea urns, stoves, traditional Mizo drums etc to be used by the public on such occasions. M1 YMA volunteers ferried all those items from our M1 warehouse to our house. That was quite a big deal, considering they had to transport around 100 heavy wooden benches manually.

While the YMA was busy with that work, dad’s body was briefly shifted upstairs in his own bedroom so that family members and other people coming to pay their respects do not interfere with the YMA activity downstairs.













Dad’s closest friends too came upstairs to be around his body…








4. Kuang siam leh chei (Making of the coffin)

While the YMA was busy transporting benches and other items to our house, another group of YMA members was busy making dad’s coffin. I’d like to point out here that dad passed away on Sunday, and in Mizoram, everything is closed on a Sunday. However, in times like this, exceptions were made and volunteers gathered at the nearest carpenter workshop to construct his coffin.



The coffin cover was also decorated at our neighbor’s house. My friends’ moms and some of my aunts who were good at this volunteered to do the decorations.






5. In sing sak (Preparing the house)

YMA leaders also oversaw the refurnishing of our house and instructed volunteers to clear out all household furniture like sofa sets, divans, carpets, tables, TVs, displays, wall paintings and decorations etc. making enough space to fit in wooden benches for the masses to sit.

Such furniture are usually moved to an empty unused room or even to a neighbor’s house, converting the house into a spacious hall to fit in as many people as possible.










 



6. Sunna program (Obituary for the funeral program sheet)

Meanwhile, at my uncle’s house next door, we took turns writing dad’s obituary for the funeral program sheet which was to be distributed to the masses on his funeral. His obituary was a short gist of his entire life, from his birth to his upbringing to his achievements in life, his family, his milestone, his service towards society etc.

This took a while as everything had to be typed out in Pagemaker format so that it could be published directly at a printing press. So my cousins, nephews and uncles took turns writing down his eulogy. Meanwhile, people who knew him well kept coming inside uncle’s house suggesting that this or that point about him should be included in his eulogy (we had a limited number of characters to use).












7. Rawng inbawl sak (Preparing food for the affected family)

During the mourning period of around 2-3 days, the affected family does not cook and eat in their own house, mainly because of three reasons - 1.) The family shall do only one thing and that is to mourn, 2.) Since the YMA has revamped the entire house, there is no space even in the kitchen to cook food, 3) There are many well wishers coming in and out of the house all the time.

According to our traditions, the task of cooking for the bereaved families lies in the hands of the neighbors. However, in our case, we live in a “colony”, where three of the surrounding buildings next to ours belong to my uncle and aunts. So we ate there for the next 2-3 days.

Below are my cousins, nephews and nieces eating at my aunt’s place -









Meanwhile, my mom, sisters and other relatives from other localities who temporarily stayed with us, ate at my uncle’s house next door –









However, just because we lived in a colony and ate at the homes of our uncle and aunts did not mean the concept of “Rawng inbawl sak” was lost. People like our former manny (male nanny), maids, drivers, employees of the Power & Electric dept. and other people whose lives had been affected by dad came from far places to pay their respects. They ate breakfasts and dinners at our neighbors’ houses. Unlike most Indian societies, our Mizo society is pretty much class-less and you will find high ranking officers and even ministers eating a meal with their servants and drivers on the same table at the same time (perhaps I’ll blog about this later).


8. Mitthi lumen/ Mitthi tlaivar (A wake – keeping vigil till the break of dawn)

As I mentioned in point no.2 above, there was a wake before dad’s funeral the next day.

At such events, YMA volunteers stay up singing worship and funeral songs throughout the night till the break of dawn, giving company to the affected family.

























And yes, people do fall off to sleep now and then on their bench for a short while, which is understandable, that is, of course as long as you are not the one playing the musical instrument :)
























9. Thingpui leh sawhchiar siam (Making drinks and food for those keeping vigil)

While YMA members sat in the house singing songs and keeping vigil till the break of dawn, another group took up the task of making tea and food. This is done in order to keep the people awake and reenergize them.

Tea was prepared and served three of four times during this program, and the food served is our traditional “sawhchiar” which is a thick rice broth mixed with chicken (think of a “dal khichhdi” cooked with chicken). The utensils used like vessels, plates, cups, gas, stove, etc all belonged to our YMA M1 section.







Another group of younger YMA members waited by the makeshift kitchen, ready to serve the food and tea to the people keeping vigil inside the house.



I’d just like to point out here that traditionally during “mitthi lumen”, the men prepare the tea and “sawhchiar”, while the women serve the prepared refreshments to the masses. However, in our locality, we follow a practice where the men folks again serve to the public. Hence this practice varies from locality to locality.


10. Thlan laih (digging of the grave)

This is another very important aspect of our Mizo funeral custom – digging of the grave.

YMA members who did not take part in a vigil (mentioned above), wake up early the next day and proceeded to the graveyard, where other YMA leaders instructed them on where to dig. Sometimes other YMA members who took part in the vigil too go directly to the graveyard to participate in digging of the grave, once the vigil was over at the break of dawn.

Unfortunately I do not have any photo of this particular incident, but since I have taken part in a few “thlan laih” myself, let me visually describe this event for you – So around 5 in the morning, YMA members, all males and mostly in their late teens and early 20’s assemble at the graveyard. YMA leaders or older members are also present to supervise the dig.

Once the spot has been identified, the youth starts digging. In order to conserve strength and stamina, each member is allowed to shovel out soil only 6-7 times, while other members stand in line behind him, waiting for their turn. Once he is done, he climbs out of the grave to join the line while the person behind him jumps in and starts shoveling again. The dig stops once the depth reaches 6 feet.

People too crack jokes and laugh during this activity, so as to keep the mood and spirit alive. Affected family members do not take part in such “thlan laihs”.


11. Vuina (Funeral Program)

This is the official funeral program conducted by the YMA and the Church denomination we belonged to. I have written about this in detail in my previous post – “A Funeral of Hearts”, covering every aspect of this program right from the beginning of the program till the burial, so please do read my previous post regarding this.



12. Buhfai khawn (collection of rice)

According to our Mizo custom, in times of death, an entire locality is supposed to donate one cup of rice for the affected family. If members of that locality do not have one cup of rice to spare, then they’re supposed to give 5 rupees instead. Of course nobody does that today, but in order to preserve our culture, the YMA still accepts 5 rupees instead of 1 cup of rice from those families facing such hardships.

Again, the exact amount of rice or money to be donated differs from locality to locality.

The collection of rice is done by young YMA damsels, wearing our traditional “puan dum” (wraparound), and they collect rice from their respective YMA sections in our traditional “em” (basket), going from door to door. Once they’re done collecting, they then proceed to the affected house to deliver the rice they have collected.





In our case, we received four sacks of rice in total from our six YMA sections.



13. Khawhar in riah pui (sleepover at the grieving family’s house)

Another funeral practice is for YMA members, mainly neighbors, to sleep over at the house of the grieving family. After the funeral, YMA volunteers carry in their beddings and blankets to spend the night there for around a week, so that grieving family members do not feel lonely. Such members also cook, eat, bathe and take part in household chores, as if the place is their permanent home while going to office or doing their usual activities during the day.

Again, in our case, since we lived in a “colony” as mentioned earlier and because we didn’t want to trouble our neighbors more than necessary, we told our YMA leaders that we wouldn’t be requiring “khawhar in riah pui”. And so, our relatives slept over at our place instead of the YMA and this went on for two weeks in our case. While my cousin, nephew and I slept inside dad’s room on the floor, my aunt, cousins and nieces slept with mom in the adjoining rooms.




14. Ral (official and personal)

In our Mizo society we have a unique term called “ral”. It is the practice of giving money as condolences to members of the affected family. You’re not supposed to refuse such offers because this act is considered a part of our Mizo tradition. The amount of money given does not matter as that depends on the relationship between the ral’er and the ral’ee, the financial situation of the ral’er and other factors. What matters is the practice of giving money, any sum, to show the hurting family members that they share their grief and that they are always there for them if needed.


Of course the above pic is for demonstrative purpose only, thanx to my sporty friend Maz :) The actual act of ral’ing is done discretely, usually with a subtle handshake. Though I didn’t take photos of all my friends who ral’ed me, it was great to see many of my friends who I hadn’t seen in a long time coming out of their way to ral me.







Also, it was awesome seeing my close friend from School Antony Paul, who happened to visit Mizoram right at that time. He was our School Captain back in Tamil Nadu when I was the Patrick House Captain. Keeping in line with our Mizo traditions, he too ral’ed me, making me the first person he had ever ral’ed in his life, and to me, he was the first Mallyalee to ever ral me :)


Apart from the personal ral, we also have an “official” ral, where various associations come to ral our family. This is done in groups and is a bit more formal, with prayer service, worship songs, short speeches etc.

Below are three groups who ral’ed us – the Mizo Civil Pensioner Association, the MUP (Mizo Senior Citizens Association), and colleagues and former colleagues of mom and my eldest sister at the AISC. Such type of ral’ing even comes with its own Program sheet…









In such type of ral’ing, the amount presented to the bereaved family is a bit more than a personal ral, as it is a group activity. Sometimes, large cooking utensils are also presented to the family instead of money. The presentation is also made more official unlike a personal ral which I have mentioned earlier is done subtly.





Of course since this type of ral’ing is official, we also need to make sure there is good refreshments served to those who ral’ed us. That means tea and snacks.






The YMA was not supposed to assist us in these situations, so friends and family members helped us prepare and serve to the guests…



Meanwhile outside, other groups waited for the previous group to finishing ral’ing us, and once the previous group left our house, the others moved in…





15.  YMA zan (YMA night)

The YMA also conducts short functions, around 2 hours in duration, at the affected family’s house, where members gather in large numbers. People sing worship songs, conduct prayer service and make short eulogies about the deceased.

The function takes place for three consecutive nights. If there is a “mitthi lumen” (as mentioned in point 8), then that is considered as the first night, and the function is held again for the next two nights. If the funeral takes place on the same day with no “mitthi lumen” (as mentioned in point 2), then the functions takes place for the next three nights.




In case of a YMA night, the hosts are not allowed to serve refreshments, as the YMA feels that if this becomes a practice, then it puts pressure on families who cannot afford to do so. However in our case, since the YMA went out of their way to grant us an extra day of mourning (mentioned in point 2) and also because of the fact that there was a huge YMA turnout during dad’s funeral in spite of the fact that me and my three sisters rarely took part in similar activities because we were hardly in Mizoram, while delivering a short speech in the name of my family on the final YMA night thanking the YMA for everything, I politely requested all the members to kindly share refreshments with us after the function. Outside our house, my cousins and nephews were already waiting to serve the refreshments.




Again I’d like to stress here that refreshments are not served during “YMA nights” according to our Mizo traditions, but because of the reasons I’ve mentioned above, the YMA leaders didn’t object to us serving them refreshments (tea, cake, biscuits etc) though they did politely told me we shouldn't have done this.

Once that final YMA night function was over, it was slowly time to start rearranging the house again. The YMA does not get involved in this anymore and it is done by us (assisted by friends and relatives).




16. Khawhar inleng Fatu (Lending a helping hand)

After the final YMA night and official “ral” by various groups and associations, people still come to our house (known as “inleng”) just to keep us company so we don’t feel lonely or miss the dearly departed. In such cases, refreshments like tea and cake are served to the guests, but since it is no longer the responsibility of the YMA to assist us, our friends and well-wishers who visit us serve the guests.



Even if such friends come from other localities and don’t know any of our guests (who are mainly from our locality), they immediately volunteer to serve without any hesitation when the refreshments are ready. This is another thing I like about our community.




Cousins and relatives came every day to help us out.



Since most of my cousins have their own family, they bring along their kids who stay upstairs while they assist us with the refreshments. Below are some of my really cute nephews and nieces.



Meanwhile, we slowly started cooking food for ourselves too instead of eating over at our neighbors' /relatives' houses (mentioned in point 7), but since we still had guests coming in every now and then, we couldn’t use our kitchen, so we cooked downstairs in our store room.






17. Bungraw kir (Returning of YMA goods)

Finally, as the days came by, the frequency of guests visiting our house reduced, and it was time to return all the YMA stuff like benches, stove, tea cups etc. that YMA members brought to our house on day 1.

Again, the YMA does not get involved in this and it is our responsibility to return them back to our YMA M1 section “bungraw in” (warehouse) ourselves.






18. Thlan tui pek  (watering the grave)

I’d like to close this lengthy post with daddy’s grave.

The day after dad’s funeral, masons and YMA volunteers laid bricks and cement on dad’s grave. We were supposed to provide all the equipments, including the refreshments (tea and sawhchiar) for the workers. According to our Mizo traditions, this is known as “Makpa chanpual” which roughly translates into “son-in-law’s responsibility”.

The son/sons -in-law are supposed to oversee and manage this section of the work. Fortunately for us, my eldest sister Lapuii’s husband is a professional carpenter and runs his own furniture workshop. Unfortunately for us, my sister Mazami’s husband is British who had never experienced something like this before in his life. However, he played his role to perfection, doing whatever was necessary.









Apart from that, we had to visit daddy’s grave every day to water the cement. We also decorated it every day, bringing in fresh flowers.











RIP daddy. Rest well with your neighbors and friends.



I’m ending this post with a big THANK YOU to our Chaltlang YMA leaders and members, Chaltlang M1 section, Chaltlang South Presbyterian and KTP members, my uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces, family friends and well-wishers, and all my dear friends and neighbors. You have made this difficult transition for us so much smoother and easier, otherwise it would have been a terrible ordeal for us. May the spirit of Mizo “tlawmngaihna” and YMA brotherhood live on forever.