The sociology exam was a blur. After it was over, I waited outside the classroom, curled up on a cold, hard bench. My literature professor found me there, red-eyed, staring up at the ceiling. Concerned, he asked me what was going on.
“I have to go to a funeral from here,” I told him. My voice wavered embarrassingly, “I’m waiting for Parnika so I can borrow her gray hoodie. I can’t wear this there.”
It had all happened so unexpectedly. Two days before, my great-uncle had been admitted to the hospital. That morning, I was on my way to my final exam, thrilled at the prospect of finishing college. But before entering campus, I opened the family WhatsApp group to a message announcing my great-uncle’s death. I broke down instantly, animalistic sobs leaving my body.
My exam seemed to write itself, and I submitted it dazedly before storming out of class and throwing myself on the first bench I saw.
Sitting there, I looked down at my t-shirt. It was black, with a print from the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet that showed Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes kissing. I had borrowed it from a friend because I loved it so much—but I could easily imagine the whispers from relatives and family friends about how disrespectful it was for a funeral. In India, public displays of romance such as kissing are considered taboo, and the print on the t-shirt was, hence, inappropriate.
It wouldn’t do at all.
Policing Clothing and Behavior as Inappropriate
As a woman raised in India, the idea of “inappropriate” has been ingrained in my brain since I was a child. At only the age of three, my mother tells me, a classmate’s parent at nursery told me off for not sitting properly, “like a lady.” Later, still at an age in which I did not understand the implications, a relative pulled me aside at a family event to tell me that everyone was upset by my stomach showing.
Throughout school, girls were punished and slut-shamed for the lengths of their skirts, having male friends, or even wearing lip balm, accused of being provocative to attract boys. Rape cases in the news meant public debates on whether the victim deserved what happened to them for being dressed a certain way (with most politicians arguing that yes, they did).
Even today, this idea of impropriety is something I have to constantly reckon with, especially when I see women villainized for wearing what they want, drinking and partying, or dating who they want. These acts are seen as moral failings, an inability to live up to their feminine duties. Repeatedly, I have been told that certain clothes are only appropriate for certain situations: I cannot show my stomach at a family gathering, or wear a low neck top to a temple—out of respect.
But I have always failed to understand the link between respect and clothing. How would my wearing a t-shirt with two people kissing change the unbearable pain I felt at losing my great-uncle? Why could this one act negatively affect everyone’s perception of me so deeply and make them see me differently, when they had known who I was since I was a baby? To me, a body has always been simply physical, a vessel free of moral and social implications—but for many, the clothes that adorn it are inextricably linked to character.
The constant moral policing I witness every day has begun to wear me down: there was a time when I would fight back, getting into passionate arguments with anyone who told me I couldn’t dress a certain way. By the time of my great-uncle’s funeral, I was burnt out. The thought of defending myself was exhausting. I could not explain yet again how attributing values and morals to clothing would always mean second-guessing every part of our behavior and appearance.
The societal pressure to look and behave in a way that is deemed appropriate, or risk being ostracized, extends to every situation, including traumatic ones like funerals. Funerals are meant to be spaces to mourn together, as a community. However, because of this social pressure, just feeling grief is not enough: we are expected to present our mourning in ways that are palpable and digestible, from what we wear to our bodily gestures.
I myself am not immune to these expectations. In 2022, legendary Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar passed away at the age of 92. Her state funeral was enormous, attended by at least a thousand people, including the Indian Prime Minister, and celebrities from all over the nation. At a sleepover a few days after, my friends and I pulled up a website with photos of the event. We saw several public figures looking somber in white. Scrolling through the page, we flippantly discussed which celebrities had perfected their funeral looks, and which had missed the mark (the unanimous decision was that Shah Rukh Khan does funerals best).
It became a tradition: after celebrity funerals, we would joke about who behaved and dressed most appropriately: were they wearing white, or a similarly sober color? Did they walk with their head lowered, and shed a few tears at the pyre? Did they fold their hands to greet others, and hug the deceased’s family? With sarcasm at the center, we rated the attendees based on these acts.
Our ritual pokes fun at the judgemental culture we have been brought up in, bringing out our discomfort with social norms that we have been conditioned to follow from a young age. Humor is a great way to cope with our distaste for these stifling ideas of impropriety and inappropriateness.
This ironic play also makes us keenly aware of the gendered differences related to what is “appropriate” for mourning. Unfortunately, women are often denied the chance to grieve in the ways that men do. At many Hindu funerals, women are often not allowed to accompany the deceased to the crematorium. At my grandmother’s funeral, I remember feeling my heart drop when a distant relative questioned if my sister and I should be attending. My father was quick to shut them down: he had been one of the first people in the family to advocate for his sisters, aunts, mother—and now, his daughters—to witness our loved ones’ final journeys.
Recently, a scene from the Indian thriller series Mai (2022) went viral on social media. It showed a mother making tea for guests at her daughter’s funeral. Many pointed out that it depicted the unfair realities of mourning in Indian society. One user tweeted: “It was a reminder of the kind of labor we expect from women. She has to prioritize serving guests over taking a moment to grieve the loss of her own child.”
These double standards are not limited to Indian culture: in the West, tabloids and social media often take apart celebrities’ behavior at funerals to suit their own narratives. At Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, was under high scrutiny: from her body language to her interactions with the public, she was criticized for it all. People were quick to call her tears at the funeral fake, deeming it the “performance of a lifetime.” She was also torn apart for holding her husband’s hand, as if seeking or providing comfort in a challenging time was shameful.
The show Fleabag captured this problem perfectly. In one episode, the protagonist feels embarrassed at her mother’s funeral because she somehow wakes up looking especially radiant, and attendees keep commenting on it. There is nothing she can do about her appearance, yet people keep eyeing her suspiciously, trying to gauge if she is devastated enough.
Judging people for how they look and act while grieving not only puts undue pressure on the bereaved; it also does not allow space for neurodivergence and behaviors that deviate from conventionally expected performances. There is no regard given to the fact that people process emotions and grieve losses differently. Instead, the bereaveds’ performances are taken apart and investigated to find fault with. At my great-uncle’s funeral, I was taken aback by how indifferent his grandson—my ten year-old cousin—seemed to the incident. Later that night, he told his mother: “The only difference between your crying and mine is that mine is on the inside.”
In the last few years, I have known enough death for grief to feel like an old friend (or an arch nemesis). I often jokingly tell my friends that I do not go through the stages of grief because it is my perpetual state of being. In 2020, when I lost my grandfather to COVID, I was still new to the emotion and its all-consuming nature. Now, sinking into mourning feels like second nature. When a dreaded funeral arrives, I know exactly what to say and do, floating around easily, offering people water, embracing anyone who comes my way in tears, giving wistful smiles to those I haven’t seen in years. I have realized that funerals are not always the time of dazed, all-consuming grief that I used to believe they were:. Instead, there is an element of performance and scrutiny to these events, much like everything else in society. Yet, funerals are also a time of togetherness and solidarity.
Because my grandfather passed away in the first few months of the pandemic, he was not allowed a proper funeral by the government. His body was taken away in a bag straight from the hospital, with very few family members permitted to be present. As a result, many members of my family, including me, were unable to process his death for months after.
My grandmother died six months later, in our presence. Not only did my family and I cry together, we performed every ritual, united: right before she passed, we took turns bringing a spoonful of water to her lips. Her body was carried from the bedroom to the hall, laden with flowers and garlands, nose stuffed with cotton. We walked in circles around her, faces covered in snot and tears. At the crematorium, we were joined by more family members, dressed in white to represent purity and humility. The cremation took hours, some of which were spent with my cousins and I sitting together by the pyre, simply staring at the new form our grandmother was taking. I went home that night drained and empty, but there was a feeling of satisfaction for the life she had lived: one that had brought us all together like this on her last day.
Grief, to me, means involvement and closeness: it is a time of communal healing, and should not feel, to anyone in the world, as a compulsion to perform and conform. In the last few years, the familiarity I feel with grief means that I am learning ways in which I can cope with it better. After I lose someone, I attempt to stay as close to their death as possible: I have spent the last few days with my great-aunt in the same house that my great-uncle spent his final years in, because my proximity to this loss—and the people affected by it—is how I process death.
The rituals I see around me make space for intimacy and togetherness, not trying to rush the process of grief. Apart from a funeral on the day of someone’s death, there are also prayer ceremonies on the fourth and thirteenth days after their passing. In fact, for the first thirteen days, members of the family try and reunite daily to eat together, and remember the deceased. A few days after my grandmother passed, my family and I traveled to a nearby town to submerge her ashes in a river. This trip was another chance to feel better not only by distracting ourselves, but by doing something for her, together.
Over the first twelve months, on each recurring date of her death, the family came together to pray in her memory. In the end, a whole year later, a final prayer meet was held in her memory. It was the perfect time for loved ones to process and reflect on the loss after some time had passed, thus continuing forward on their individual paths to recovery.
These experiences have taught me that times of death and grieving are not for judgment and scrutiny, but for unconditional support and care. Instead of focusing on others’ behaviors, this is the best period to center oneself and reflect on how you’re feeling: the first step to acceptance. It is absurd to think that the extent of someone’s grief can be measured by what they wear, or how much they cry. Ultimately, grief is like any other emotion: everyone feels and displays it differently, and it is not always visible, appropriate or presentable.
The gray hoodie I ended up wearing to my great-uncle’s funeral was a hit. Two days later, my grandmother called to tell me everyone had liked my outfit. It was a ridiculous, near-painful conversation to be a part of: I hadn’t slept in two nights, and every time I shut my eyes, I saw my great-uncle’s face. My chest hurt from the weight of a loss I didn’t think I could recover from. My great-uncle was never coming back—but at least everyone had liked my hoodie.