By Ramsha Aveen
The world is witnessing a global pandemic. Covid-19 has turned the world upside down; our taken-for-granted things are put to a halt. As the outer realm has ceased to exist, we are confronted with the inner. The inner world is always in a state of flux craving for meaning and purpose of one’s existence and life. Human life can be viewed as a dramaturgical experience as noted by Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman in his work The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). In our everyday life, we perform for the society the same way a theatre artist performs for his or her audience. We present a certain image of ourselves in front of the society. Each and every single event of the human life is performed before the society, especially those which holds great significance (although the significance is socially and culturally constructed) in one`s life, i.e. birth, marriage and death. The front stage performance of these life events requires the acknowledgement of the social groups of which we are part of and the society at large.
Death is the most peculiar event in the life of humankind. It makes us rethink about the material existence, the absurdity of life, questions of eternity, mortality and what makes life worth living. Overall, one can say that death makes us go back to life. It makes us reflect on the meaning of life which is tied to the dark shadows of death. Death has its own life and existence and it is too performed for the society, although one can note that death and the performance of death are two different things, as each has its own framework. Death is like air: limitless, boundless, infinite and constant. But the performance of death is integrated with the society. Right from the time of death to the burial ground, the act of death is performed where we as members of the society perform specific roles and duties. The path to the last and the most important journey requires a wide range of activities like bathing of the dead body, reciting religious verses, collective mourning and the other customary funerary practices.
Covid-19 has altered and disrupted the performance of death. A corona positive individual is not only a patient but he or she is treated like a criminal, reminding us of Michel Foucault’s work Madness and Civilization (1961) where people with mental illness are treated as deviant members of the society. Although the context differs, a Covid-19 positive patient is a threat to the social order; he or she is a deviant member of the society who needs to be excluded and enclosed. We have instances where people suspected to be Covid-19 positive are subjected to extreme brutality. They are assaulted and are called “Corona” as we see in the case of a girl from the North East; she is racially abused by using the shield of Covid-19. The dead body of a Covid-19 patient is treated as a deviant to the larger society, thereby altering the performance of death. The dead body contaminated with infection is a threat to the functioning of the society as it is unclear how long the virus remains infectious in a dead body.
It is a basic human right of a deceased person to be disposed in accordance to the local customs of funeral rites. But what we witness is how dead bodies are packed in body-bags wrapped in multiple sheets and coffins, thoroughly disinfected and dumped into the cremation ground. According to the Covid-19 guidelines, rituals such as reading from the verses of holy books that do not require touching of the body is permitted and the family members are allowed to see the face of the deceased for the last time by unzipping the body-bag following the rules of social distancing. However, these relaxations vary from context to context.
This recent global pandemic has ceased the public performance of death. The ritual customs which used to take place have itself become a threat to the human survival. The humane touch related to the performance of death is now reduced to a virtual performance as condolence meetings and reading of scriptures occur on Google Meet and Zoom. The Virtual Reality has taken over the sacred aspects of life. The conventional public performance of death is altered; it has ceased to be a public affair submerged under the rules of social distancing and the threat of survival of human life. Covid-19 has led to a new discourse of human life as the definition of “normal” has changed and a “new normal” has emerged amidst the corona virus.
We are seeing a ‘paradigm shift’ in our lives occurring due to new fears and anxiety. We are confronted with new forms of uncertainties and vulnerabilities. As the front stage performance of death has become a more intimate and private affair, we are confronted to deal with the inner meanings of death. Covid-19 fortunately or unfortunately has opened up new possibilities to explore the meaning of death; it has subtly demarcated the death from the performance of death. Covid-19 might help us rethink about the questions of eternity, the absurdity of life and the covert meanings of death from a more subjective standpoint, when we are constantly confronted with new threats and dangers.
Ramsha Aveen is a student of Sociology at Jamia Millia Islamia. She writes poetry and prose and has a keen interest in Literature, Art and Philosophy.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.