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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

To give its infants ‘their due’,Mizoram attempts to change burial practices

High infant mortality was one of the reasons for the hasty burial of the young.

Written by Adam Halliday |
September 22, 2013 12:18:08 am

In March 2008,when her second child died suddenly after midnight,five days short of being three months old,Lalrindiki Hmar had to bury him without any ceremony in a small,hurriedly dug grave just an hour later.

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The following year,Lalrindiki went through the ordeal again when her two-month-old daughter Lalhmangaihzuali died. Like her elder brother,she was buried without ceremony in a cramped cemetery.

Lalrindiki’s fourth child Priscilla died last year,aged three months and eight weeks. This time however,the infant was bid farewell in full ceremony as accorded to the dead in Mizo society. Mourning songs were sung and the whole community came together,to console the bereaved family through the night. Priscilla had attained this right to a proper burial only because she had survived for a week longer than three months. Her two siblings had not been that fortunate.

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Of Lalrindiki’s four children,only one—her eldest daughter— has survived. While two of them succumbed to unknown illnesses,her youngest,two-month-old Lalhmangaihzuali died of pneumonia.

“It was heartbreaking. The way they died and then the way we said goodbye,it wasn’t normal,” Lalrindiki said. “When we buried Priscilla with full ceremony,the hurt we felt was less. But her siblings…for the society they were just hlamzuih. But for us,they were human too.” “Hlamzuih” is the Mizo term used to describe infants less than three months old. After their death,the hlamzuih are placed in small coffins and buried immediately without the usual customs that accompany the dead. The deceased infants,in many cases,don’t even make it to cemeteries with families burying them quickly in their own yards.

In pre-Christian times,eggs were also placed in small vessels and buried alongside the deceased infants,in a belief that the eggs would guide the children to safety at the “mitthi khua”,the village of the dead.

Spread out in tiny mountain-top villages divided into warring tribes,the Mizos were mostly subsistence farmers. For them,observing full mourning rituals meant losing many days of farming. It was only towards the end of the 19th century,when the British administration came in, that Christian missionaries developed the Mizo alphabet and introduced modern medicine. In pre-modern Mizo society,Mizo women,besides breast feeding,followed traditional child-rearing practices like chewing cooked rice and feeding it to infants. Infant mortality rates were high and it was only too convenient to bury the hlamzuih without full ceremony. But in August,community leaders gathered to do away with the practice and even the term. One of the reasons cited was the steady drop in Mizoram’s infant mortality rate (IMR)—36 per 1,000 births in 2009 to 28 in 2012. While full mourning was not made mandatory,they agreed that “if the 25-odd hlamzuih deaths follow full funeral rituals,it is not likely to affect the community’s functioning”. The decision also reflects Mizo society’s adoption of the United Nation contention that humans are human,from conception till death.

Eighty-one prominent citizens,leaders of various church denominations and members of voluntary organisations were at the meeting. One of the organisations present,the Young Mizo Association (YMA),plays an important role in Mizo society,coordinating all aspects of social life and dealing with death and burials.

Its units,present in Mizo villages,towns and cities,count all men and women above the age of 14 as members. The dead in Mizo society are given an elaborate farewell. In case of a death,YMA volunteers swing into action,informing communities via public announcement systems,sounding the mitthi dar (death gong),preparing the homes of bereaved family members to receive mourners,making tea,singing mourning songs,and digging graves and filling them up after funerals. (There are no undertakers in Mizoram.) Funerals are arranged for the same day,if the deaths occur before 9 am. Two nights of community mourning,song and sometimes,even dance follows.

Last Thursday,members of the YMA met in Aizawl and called for a complete re-examination of the traditions governing the burial of the dead. Laltlankima Khupchong,YMA volunteer from Lalrindiki’s locality Chaltlang in Aizawl,said,“It is a good move. When four-month-old infants are buried with full ceremony,it is discriminatory to bury those just a month younger without any. What if one of our own died before they turned three months old? How would we feel?”

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