This last Saturday my hosts in Shillong took me to the village of Nantong, and environs, where we visited some sacred groves and saw a number of monoliths, huge stones settled on sacred sites. We were accompanied by a local Khasi Indigenous elder, who explained the significance of the stones and such to us. The stones largely function in one of two fashions. On the one hand, they are memorial stones, whose raisings are organized by family matriarchs to honour uncles on the mother’s side. These uncles had responsibilities for children that basically accrue to the role of fathers in modern Western worldviews. These stones are always vertical. Alternately, there are large horizontal stones held up by smaller vertical ones, and these table-like stones are identified with the matriarchs themselves – Khasi being a matriarchal culture – upon which certain rituals are performed. In some sites, a cluster of stones function as a kind of reliquary, where bones are held. The faithful go to such sites to ask the ancestors to intercede for God on their behalf.
As we were walking about, I mentioned how cemeteries in the West regularly make use of stones as well, and Dr. Fabian Marbaniang – an anthropology professor from Martin Luther Christian University here in Shillong – noted that there is a broad global practice of using both stones and trees as grave markers in light of their capacity to last many generations. We want to remember those who have passed on before us, and stones and such are fitting aides de memoire.
I can understand this at a deep visceral level. Tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He would have been 98 had he not died some 11 years ago. Every now and then, especially as the years go past, I have a sharp desire to relive some bits of our life together, to feel his presence again. As memories slide over the years, I feel a kind of pang that makes me want to mark his memory in some way. Many people do this by visiting graves and bringing flowers, but his grave is some 4000 kms from where I live and so I sometimes struggle to think how to properly honour his memory, and others beloved by me and mine.
I sense that I am acutely aware of this during travel, when I think of my Dad’s travel during four years aboard a corvette – an escort ship – during WWII. He spent many years living fleet of foot, calling many ports of call home for short bits of time, and rotating into and out of hammocks swinging over mess tables for short fits of sleep at sea. His was a sojourning life during those years. Travel far from home, it seems, prods and produces recollections of my Dad. And so as I go about these days, looking at Khasi Indigenous burial practices, among other things, I find myself thinking about my own culture’s burial customs, about my own needs to negotiate death and loss, and wondering how I can better honour the memories of my own ancestors. Here in India, it seems, I meet myself yet again.