With compassion and sensitivity, Minakshi Dewan explores the many ways in which some of the country’s major faiths treat the dead: this includes avoidance of human remains, believed by some to be spiritual pollutants; the worship of bodies at the pyre; professional mourners hired to wail loudly for the dead; musicians devoted to celebrating life at funerals; and how final rites and rituals reveal the misogyny and caste-based discrimination.

Powerful and enlightening, The Final Farewell offers a glimpse into a world that is misunderstood and feared. Based on thorough research, keen observation, and personal interviews, The Final Farewell is a reminder to honour those who came before, and to work towards a better world to leave behind.

422221058 17911807523872658 5877626602703702696 nDr. Minakshi Dewan is a researcher and writer with a PhD in social medicine and community health from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a master’s in social work from TISS Mumbai. She has worked with international and grassroots development organisations, with her main area of focus being women’s health, gender, and community mobilization. She has contributed chapters in academic publications on tribal health and healing rituals.

Dewan’s writings have appeared in leading Indian and international publications and address a range of issues, including health, human rights, the environment and culture. She has also written a non-fiction title for children. The Final Farewell is Dewan’s debut book with HarperCollins, India.

The Final Farewell: Exploring the End of Life with Author Minakshi Dewan

The Final Farewell

What inspired you to write The Final Farewell?

Dewan: The idea of The Final Farewell, as I mention in the introduction, emanated from my personal experience. I lost my father in 2019. As the chief mourner, I had a crucial role in Papa’s last rites or antim sanskar. I discovered intriguing things during this time. I remember the death worker who assisted us in laying the cremation pyre and collecting the ashes. He had red eyes and his voice was slurred. I wondered why.

My conversations with the Tirath Purohit (pilgrimage priest) in Haridwar were equally exciting. I witnessed how his family preserved ancient records for centuries. Then my conversations with the Mahapatra, the funeral priest, were fascinating. I learned how their work is restricted to death work. He said, “Hum sirf mrityu se jude kaam karte hain (I only perform rites related to death).”

After a few months, we were confronted by a devastating pandemic. The death count was excessively high and disposing of the deceased posed a challenge. I felt compelled to document the death work and mechanisms available to deal with grief during the global crisis. Understanding and documenting the last rites and rituals of diverse faiths seemed crucial to a researcher. There was a need to start a discourse on this crucial topic beyond academic discussions. I conceived the book during the global catastrophe.

What was the process of writing The Final Farewell like for you?

Burning Ghats of Varansai

Burning Ghats of Varansai. Image via author.

Dewan: Writing a book is a journey. It was both a fascinating and a challenging experience. It involved enormous research. I delved into books, research articles, newspaper clips, and films to gain a deeper understanding of different aspects.

Besides that, I connected with people from diverse backgrounds during book research. I spoke to researchers, filmmakers, journalists, death workers, priests, families, and performers, among others. I visited Varanasi, an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, to understand the varied aspects of last rites and rituals.

How did writing The Final Farewell change your perspective on death and dying?

varanasi death and dying

The Ganges in Varanasi.

Dewan: It was a life-changing experience for me. So much learning and unlearning happened. Researching and writing the book taught me a lot about life and the people on this journey. For instance, it was fascinating talking to women who performed the last rites during the pandemic, usually restricted to men.

As a social scientist, it has certainly made me understand and grasp different aspects of last rites. However, this is just the beginning. I believe there is still much to do.

What surprised you the most when writing The Final Farewell?

Open Pyre Cremations

Open Pyre Cremations. Image via author.

Dewan: I found how the last rites and rituals are varied and similar across faiths at the same time. For instance, washing and shrouding rituals are important across religions. Every faith discourages excessive mourning. Similarly, not lightening the kitchen hearth is another common aspect.

The most shocking aspect was to learn about the discrimination in the last rites. As I went deeper, I learned how death work is treated with disdain here — confined to Dalits or lower caste groups. I also discovered how the higher caste groups stop the lower caste members from using the common cremation or burial spaces. For instance, I remember a person telling me how his community members had to bury their loved ones close to their living quarters. It was disheartening to hear these narratives.

What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

Dewan: The difficulty was to present the narratives with the utmost care and compassion. Other than this, it was challenging talking to the families who lost their loved ones during the pandemic.

How has your experience in social work influenced your writing?

Dewan: My research experience and past interactions with the communities helped me relate to them with compassion and sensitivity. Because of my training, I could engage with people better and read between the lines. The observations were deeper and the lens of looking at things was diverse.

What do you most hope readers will take away from your book?

Shops selling goods related to funerary customs in Varanasi

Shops selling goods for funerals in Varanasi. Image via author.

Dewan: I hope the book helps people talk about death. The Final Farewell unravels the mechanics around the last rites and rituals of five faiths and the actors involved in this journey. It not just chronicles but analyses these aspects for the readers.

The book explores many other fascinating themes. For instance, there is a chapter on the world of Death Tourism in Varanasi. I also look at the death industry in India. There is a chapter on how the last rites were performed differently during the Covid-19 pandemic. I also explore lamenting traditions in India.

It is a book for everyone because we are mortal beings, after all. I am glad that it is resonating with the readers. The other day, someone randomly messaged me, sharing how she picked up a copy from the airport on her return journey after cremating her grandmother.

I hope The Final Farewell becomes an anchor for others striving to find answers. It has started a much-needed discourse around last rites. Yet, there is much more to learn and discover about this crucial event.

What are some other books and/or authors that influence your work or excite you?

Dewan: I read both fiction and non-fiction. I love Atul Gawande’s Book, Being Mortal. Death in Banaras is a seminal work by Jonathan Parry that inspired my writing. I recently read Samskara by U.R. Ananthamurthy.

What is your favourite line from your book?

Dewan: “No matter what one may believe in, all forms of life share that certainty of death, and so it deserves respect and care for all the stories it leaves behind for the living.”

Are there any other projects you are currently working on you’d like to share about?

Dewan: I am writing some pieces about my research work, currently. There is so much more to be done. I also have ideas for my next book project, but I am still trying to gain clarity.

You can purchase The Final Farewell here, and read more of Minakshi Dewan’s work here on TalkDeath.


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