How do you honor your loved ones?
Do you take time to remember the people you loved who have died? American Christians often get lost in our own grief–or worse do not know how to grieve well. The economic demands of capitalism and customs of limited time off for bereavement get in the way of remembering. Our faith suggests that a Christian burial is all that is required. We do not have rituals around remembering the dead other than the few days leading up to and including the funeral–and these days, many are choosing not to have a funeral at all. Occasionally, people will choose to honor their loved one year after they have died by spreading their ashes or gathering for a meal.
In Hindu Iyengar traditions, the rituals around remembering those who have died, especially our parents are quite specific.
There are monthly new moon ceremonies and annual “shraddham” days that are determined by the celestial star on the day and time of their death. These dates change every year on our calendars. On these annual shraddham ceremony days it is customary that the husband invite a priest to the house or attend to the religious functions at the temple. Because the rituals are based in patriarchal traditions, it is the role of the husband to work with a priest to perform the necessary prayer ceremonies to remember three generations of parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Through the ritual giving of water and black sesame seeds, he provides symbolic water and food to nourish them in the eternal realm. We also give offerings of lovely things from this world–fruit, flowers, cooked food, along with our respect and prayers. In fact, the meaning of shraddha is to give reverence, or respect.
I am usually involved the preparations of setting the space, finding all the pooja items that the priest may require–sandlewood paste, kumkum (red pooja powder), haldi (turmeric), camphor, beetle leaves, beetle nuts, incense, fruit, fragrant flowers, wicks, lamps, ghee, and specially prepared freshly cooked food. The husband and wife fast (abstain from eating) from the early morning (we always have our morning chai to fortify ourselves for the day) until the rituals are completed. The wife, myself in this case, spends time in the kitchen preparing all the dishes needed for the meal. The food is made without certain ingredients and spices–we do not use coriander seeds, red chilis, sugar, onions, garlic, potatoes, or other non-traditional vegetables. All the food is vegetarian, as is required of all foods offered for Hindu prayer ceremonies. The dishes cannot be made in advance and must be prepared fresh that morning. Items that are usually included in my shraddham meals are a variety of finely chopped beans with coconut, colocasia root which I call ‘hairy potatoes’, deep fried medu vada–savory donuts, rasam, a rice dish, and a sweet. The authentic meal is much more elaborate and requires many hands in the kitchen to prepare. Instead, because we are on our own, we focus on simplicity, authenticity, and devotion to remember our amma or appa fondly rather than trying to prepare all the dishes that one might see in Tamil Nadu at a traditionally prepared meal.
Not only do we bathe, dress in clean traditional Indian clothes, and refrain from eating that morning, we do not sample or taste any of the food. Learning to cook without tasting, or for that matter, following a recipe is quite a lesson in faith and active prayer. It requires a great deal of focus and attention. Indian cooking is already elaborate–in terms of spice combinations and techniques. Shraddham cooking is even more so. These techniques are passed down from generation to generation. My appa taught me–and I continue to improve on these methods. The hardest of these dishes is one of my most favorite–medu vada. These little fried dumplings, when done well, are crispy on the outside and warm and soft on the inside. They are flavorful and mouth watering eaten fresh or soaked in rasam! Virtually impossible to make at home–they require soaking, grinding, forming, and frying. Every time I drop them into the pan, I come very close to dousing my own hand in the hot oil! Talk about the need to have an active faith and remaining present to every moment!
This year the medu vadas were very close to perfect–the holes are the hardest to form. Today they were crisp and soft on the inside! It was nothing short of a triumph and I could hear the voices of Amma and Appa laughing and praising me from the eternal realm for my heartfelt efforts.
Honoring our parents and remembering the dead takes time. It takes planning. And it is logistically challenging. Often the traditional ingredients are not available–so we must adapt. Or the priest isn’t available, so we must reevaluate what a meaningful shraddham includes. Or sometimes despite our best efforts, the food does not come out well. More often than not, God and our ancestors seems to guide my hands during my cooking just as the priest guides my husband’s hands during the traditional pooja as he calls on the names of his ancestors. He calls their names out loud and they seem to respond by joining me in the kitchen!
The best meals I have eaten have come after I have fasted. My taste buds are heightened, my appetite has peaked, the memory of our beloved Amma and Appa is recalled, and yes their Spirit seems to hover over the day’s events. I hear them whispering in my ears encouraging me, scolding me, and instructing me in the many tasks of the day.
I wish I had these kinds of Christian rituals for my mother. When I think of my mother, I think of yellow and orange roses. She loved yellow roses and named me after an orange rose. Every year I think of her on her birthday, but I do not make it a point to cook for her. Perhaps I should. The gift of the Hindu rituals is that there are guidelines and standards that require us to remember, to honor, to cook, and to taste the food that is born from love and devotion. We become part of a lineage of traditions that connect us to the many generations that came before us.
What can you do on a monthly or annual basis to remember those you love who have died? What is the fragrance of love the will emanate from your kitchen in their memory? What recipes recall their presence? May we remember them well, and may we pass these gifts of honoring the dead onto our children’s children.