Saturday, September 20, 2008

Thou shall not mention the word "death"

What is a taboo to you? In my family, death is a taboo, an untouchable subject especially to my mother’s sister. The casual mention of any word that associates to death, whether by virtue of its meaning, expression or sound; coffin, cemetery, die, kill, the number four, is often brushed off with reproach. The colour black signifying death is very often frowned upon during auspicious occasions.

We recently celebrated my brother’s birthday. Unbeknownst to my husband, he asked my brother for his age. When my brother responded thirty three, my husband joked, “Oh, that’s the age of Jesus when He died?” As limited as my mother’s comprehension of the English language, she quickly understood the conversation. I was utterly stunned even before my mother gave me that reproachful look on her face.

If you have watched the movie, The Joy Luck Club, you would remember the scene where Waverly’s mat salleh boyfriend smugly told his mother-in-law to be that soy sauce would do just the trick to improve her trademark fish dish, after she criticized her culinary skill as a disguised act of self-modesty.

I knew that my mother was not going to say anything as a result of sheer embarrassment and possibly her inability to approach a subject related to death on her beloved son’s birthday. As an act to redeem the situation, I quickly told my husband, as gently as possible, that it is culturally incorrect to say inauspicious stuff such as death on a birthday.

During another occasion when I first introduced my husband to my parents, the subject of death was brought up. Of course, my parents were completely unprepared for this, not especially on such a special occasion. I mean, meeting their daughter’s boyfriend for the first time was one of the most important moments of their lives!

So anyway, the usual get-to-know their future son-in-law session commenced with a check on my husband’s family background. As soon as my husband revealed that his parents have passed away, what would have normally appeared to be a somber moment was instead greeted by uncomfortable laughter! I was simply mortified.

Later, my husband asked me in private about my parents’ inappropriate reaction. I had to explain that their reaction was their way of coping with an awkward situation. I had to reassure him that they were not relishing on the thought that they won’t have to deal with in-laws but more of a self-defense mechanism they adopt to cover up their inability to tackle the topic.

The thing is, where does one get such taboo or superstition? Who started off this taboo and why?
While some taboos such as death will remain in a culture for a long time, will others survive with the changing of times?

For instance, sex is a taboo in our society but now it has become necessary for sex education to be implemented at an early age. As new problems such as child sexual abuse, unwanted pregnancy and the big A-I-D-S emerged, it is no longer possible for us to keep silent and shy away from the topic of sex.

It is important for parents to be able to talk about sex with their children openly in order for them to be conscious about their own body and the consequences that come from engaging in free and unprotected sex. Child sexual abuse can be prevented if children are made to understand that such act is wrong and they are able to talk about it with their parents.

Teenage pregnancies can be prevented if parents are able to discuss such consequences with their sons and daughters instead of keeping it mums. By treating it as a taboo, it will not stop your teenagers from engaging in the act. Instead, it will only make it harder for your pregnant teenage daughter to turn to you for support and advice without feeling being judged or condemned.

Fortunately for me and my future children, some taboos will die with my parents although I’m not sure my parents would appreciate the number of words related to death that has been written on this article.

Written on 29 November 2006

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