As my cohort gets over the proverbial age hill and begins the descent on the other side, our parents are beginning to rapidly vanish past the horizon. A couple of days ago, it was the news of the death of a classmate's mother. She was also a teacher in our school, which makes the death that much more of a real person that we all knew.
Responses on the Google Group soon came in from classmates from wherever we are on this planet, and typically included a note on "may her soul rest in peace."
My response did not include that.
I had other things to write to the friend, but not about his mother's soul.
How could I when I don't believe there is a soul, and for it to find a resting place after the death of a person!
All I know is that we die. Left to itself, the body will start decaying after death. Even from a practical and hygienic perspective, humans had to somehow take care of the dead. We developed different narratives in order to make sense of life and death and what do with the person who has now been reduced to being referred to as "the body."
When my grandmother died, which was when I was still in high school, I found it bizarre that one moment she was paatti (grandmother) when she breathed her last in the car in which we were taking, and a few minutes after the breath ended, she became "the body" who was being transported to the morgue. The name, the person, the identity was gone and reduced to "the body" all because she had stopped breathing. How bizarre is that!
Maybe we reduce the dead person to that kind of a designation because of the emotions that we otherwise have to deal with, when it comes to the post-death procedures? We are not comfortable with saying "paatti will be cremated at about 3 pm tomorrow" whereas it is less difficult to deal with "the body will be cremated at 3 pm tomorrow"? Or in a different culture that buries the dead, to visualize grandma being buried six feet under is more traumatic than if merely "the body" is buried?
Cultures have their own narratives of dealing not only with death but also with the dead. "Rest in peace" is a part of that narrative. The imagination here is of a soul that is different from the body, and the worry is about that soul. If it is Hitler's soul, an overwhelming majority wants that soul to suffer. The narratives about that suffering then paint us pictures of hell and purgatory. We don't want grandma souls to be anywhere near these horrible place and want those souls to rest in peace. Nor do we want them to wander around as half-dead, zombies, who might wake up on Halloween and devour our brains. (Sidebar question: will the souls of vegetarians also stay vegetarians and, thus, not eat human brains?)
Even if I leave my atheist framework aside and work with this "rest in peace," given that the classmate's mother was a Hindu, then is it really appropriate to note "may her soul rest in peace?"
No theologian I am, but that usage sounds a lot more like the purgatory-related narratives of Christianity. In the Hindu faith, if one sinned a lot, then the "soul" is sent to hell, and is reborn after whatever time it will be in that hell. Where is the place that the soul is going to rest? Rebirth is then another chance for the soul to do good and access that other route that takes the soul to heaven. Of course, Thrishanku is an exception here!
So, how does "rest in peace" really fit into the context of a Hindu's death?
Has "rest in peace" become a phrase that we utter as a reflex response anymore? Like when people sneeze and we say gesundheit, even if we have no idea that means? Is "rest in peace" no more than a part of the social behavior, like saying "have a nice day"? But, when death is so different from everyday happenings, shouldn't our response be a lot more profound than a mere utterance of "may the soul rest in peace?"
Do people, including my classmates, think about all these when they say "rest in peace"? Should they not think about these, especially when they claim to believe in whatever the narrative is of their choice on what happens after death?
I have profound respect for death; my posts in plenty are evidence of that. It is one of those rare binary things. One is either alive or dead. When things are that definitive, there is something truly awesome. I suspect that quite a few atheists are like me--we are simply amazed at the power of death. We live every single day with that thought that death could happen any second.
The wonderful thing is that I don't have to worry about whether or not I will rest in peace.
Atheists or religious, the question is this: are we (our souls) at peace within when alive?