Choreographed mourning

Jan 08, 2012, 07:51 IST | Devdutt Pattanaik

In North Korea, the leader is dead and every body is on the streets crying, mourning for their beloved leader.

In North Korea, the leader is dead and every body is on the streets crying, mourning for their beloved leader. Is this genuine grief or choreographed performance? Those in North Korea would insist it is the former. Those not in North Korea would say it is the latter. But choreography has been integral to funerals all over the world to show various emotions that is considered appropriate. It is not just North Koreans who believe in ritual melodrama.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

When heads of state die, there is the 21-gun salute and the flag flies at half-mast to show respect. That too, is a state sponsored display of respect. Carrying the soldier's coffin wrapped in the country's flag is also a ritualised expression of state grief. We just do not see it as choreography because it is 'our' ritual, not 'theirs', and because it does not involve people so explicitly. We want to avoid such choreography for leaders we want to forget -- so Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Col  Gaddafi are buried in secret, the burial sites forgotten lest they become shrines.

From ancient Egypt to medieval India, there has flourished the tradition of ritual mourners or Rudali who are paid to cry for the powerful. They pull their hair, beat their chest, roll on mud, for people they do not know, all for a fee. For it was believed, and still believed, that the mourning will tell the gods that an important man has died and that he should be given special place in the afterlife.

Death often allows itself to become a spectacle. Take our very own Taj Mahal. It is actually a burial ground. But a very rich couple's burial ground, of an emperor and his beloved queen. Through this monument that took over twenty years to build and nearly bankrupted the empire, love was cast in stone, and a tourist attraction was built for posterity.

Was it necessary? Yes, it was, to the emperor and it granted livelihood to hundreds of architects, artisans, traders and stonecutters. It established the pecking order of royalty: their burial grounds would be most special. The emperor's son, however, refused to carry on the tradition, and chose instead the utmost simplicity, with no tomb covering his grave, since he wanted nothing to come between him and God. Today what we value is the ostentatious symbol of Shah Jahan's love more than the simplicity of Aurangzeb. Everybody enjoys melodrama. It makes truth delightfully tangible.

In the strictest Islamic traditions, tombs are prohibited. But the practice rose when Islam spread to Persia where the Persian kings of yore built fabulous tombs to themselves. These Persian kings inspired Mongol kings of Central Asia and through them, the Mughals.

In India, where belief in rebirth is prevalent, the dead body must be burned and the ashes and bones cast in the river, leaving no trace of the corpse. But burial was practised for holy men, whose followers believed they would not be reborn, as they had attained supreme wisdom making their last body special. So, across India, one finds samadhis of Hindu holy men, much like dargahs of Muslim holy men that have become shrines to the faithful.

Not to be left behind, political leaders of the Indian nation states are now being entombed, and their funeral site is becoming a pilgrimage to the party faithful. So in Delhi we have Rajghat for Gandhiji and Shakti Sthal for Indira Gandhi. And when future leaders die, we can rest assured that their followers will display mourning as proof of their allegiance, and there will be tombs. Will it be sincere or strategic? Who can tell? 

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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