‘Electronic’ mourning rituals picking up during pandemic

Published December 20, 2020
A group of people carry the body for burial.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
A group of people carry the body for burial.—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: “My sister couldn’t reach Pakistan and my father passed away earlier this year. She lives in the UK and she couldn’t make it because of the coronavirus travel restrictions. She was devastated and was inconsolable,” Tehmina said. “Then her husband suggested we take her online and show her our father’s body, the burial and all the rituals. We were a little shocked at this suggestion at first but then realised that it was a brilliant idea to use technology to connect a child to a parent at a time like this.”

Relatives are meeting online to grieve. Generally, we tend to come together to mourn and support one another not only physically and financially but also emotionally. With the pandemic and lockdowns, people were alone to grieve — a shocking development in a close-knit society.

However, this vacuum was quickly filled by electronic mourning — a healthy alternative for a society used to gathering to mourn — and soon online spaces were used to gather people at such times.

With almost everything online — online classes, meetings, webinars — it was only a matter of time before people used technology to connect for mourning.

For a society like ours it is unthinkable that one does not visit an ill family member or attend a funeral

People are visiting ill relatives and friends online, as well as attending funerals, religious rituals and prayers.

As the coronavirus pandemic persists and the lockdown prolongs, people are getting used to virtual events and visits with their relatives. More and more people abroad are using online spaces to virtually attend funerals and other rituals of friends and families.

“My siblings are abroad — one is in the UK and the other is in Germany. Both of them couldn’t travel to Pakistan to attend the funeral of my mother. It would have been devastating for me to be alone to go through the whole process,” said Shamim Ali. “However, my siblings were with me online throughout — technology not only allowed them to bid farewell to mother but also to virtually attend her burial and the fateha.”

Shamim Ali says the coronavirus has turned everything around and so we have all evolved. “Who would have thought that my siblings could be part of my mother’s last journey. I know it isn’t the same as being there, but it is something to be able to have access to this.”

A religious obligation

For a society like ours where the extended family is closely connected, it is unthinkable that one does not visit an ill family member or attend a funeral. Our funerals are large since it is also a religious obligation for males to attend funeral prayers.

With the onset of the coronavirus people couldn’t attend funerals, prayers or meet the bereaved family. This was a cultural dilemma and causing a lot of social problems for many.

This is when people sought the online spaces to electronically visit relatives when they fell ill or just to talk to them. When people couldn’t attend funerals or visit hospitals they opted for online spaces for ‘e-mourning’ and ‘e-praying’.

“All you have to do is send a link of your event or use other options of virtual meeting,” Saima said. “And everyone can join in from the comfort of their homes.”

Saima’s father-in-law died of the coronavirus, shortly after her mother-in-law also tested positive. Her husband was working abroad and wasn’t allowed to return home. “We connected him directly to his mother through her phone. We taught her how to get online and connected.”

Fortunately, Saima’s mother-in-law recovered and is back home but she is thrilled to be able to connect with her children and other relatives from all over the world. Now she can use her phone without any help.

“I lost two dear relatives to corona. One was in another city inside Pakistan and the other one lived in the US. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t attend any of the funerals. I was devastated,” said Ahmed. “My relatives connected with me online and I was watching everything virtually in real time. It was surreal.”

Haider said he was under quarantine when his uncle passed away. “It was strange that we were both in Karachi and I was unable to attend his funeral or any of the fateha events. My brother got me online during the burial and then the fateha. It was a little strange but at least I paid my respect properly and saw my uncle for the last time.”

Technology has helped bridge distances between cities, countries and even continents at a time when it was most needed. More people seem to have come online during the last one year due to lockdowns and social distancing than before.

The real-time virtual presence has helped many to tackle these trying times by connecting with people more than before. Maybe the younger generation will not understand why online is such a big deal as they have been connected most of their lives.

But for older generations connecting with relatives and loved ones, especially at a time like this, it is great to be able to keep in touch with one another.

Connectivity issues decades ago

A little more than 30 years ago, when someone left the country it was quite difficult to keep in touch with them. Parents longed to hear the voices of their children and see their faces. Most of the connectivity was through letters that were personally delivered by a postman which could take weeks. It was a time when people were unable to meet or see their loved ones for the last time if they were unable to travel physically.

There were phones but as unbelievable as it may seem now, not everyone was connected to a phone and many didn’t have direct dialling as it was very expensive.

National and international calls were booked via operators who would dial the number you gave them, and they would ask how long do you want the call. The calls could be three minutes, six minutes etc or open — and you would be charged for the last period. The operator would cut the line when the time ran out. Those few minutes were precious for everyone.

If you told them that a time would come when connection would be a click away and free and that you could connect with different people at the same time even if they lived on different continents — they would surely think you were mad.

But technology is evolving all the time. It wouldn’t be wrong to think that a time will come when one will be teleported from one place to another, as well as travel back and forth in time.

Sound absurd? Don’t be too quick to judge!

Published in Dawn, December 20th, 2020

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