Recently I have read a lot of Robin Dunbar’s work in preparation for that research project looking at how social media has affected our social relationships. His main argument is that humans have the cognitive capacity to only maintain roughly 150 social relationships, a number known as Dunbar’s number. He argues that those relationships beyond this number, that may be found online (where social media supersedes time and cognitive constraints), are superficial and not meaningful, merely a representation of a person’s ability to memorise faces and names. The research project looked to see whether Facebook, and other social media sites have evaded this but this post is not about that project, but in fact about death and a saadri.
So why on earth have I brought a morbid topic of death into this? Well, last night I went to a Saadri (a Jain ritual/event that takes place after someone dies – a description is below), and I found it hard to believe that Dunbar’s number was constrained to 150.
A saadri is a somewhat unique event, (which when googled comes up with no description), among the Jain (more specifically the Indian-East African Jain) community. When a person dies, a saadri is held either that day or within a few days afterwards in a hired hall. Within this hall, the close family and friends of the deceased line up, with men and women having two separate lines and usually a picture of the deceased and a candle between, with people arranged with the closest to the deceased in the middle (nearest to the picture of the deceased). Women wear white and seats are laid out throughout the hall in a regular fashion (with men and women separated). The saadri is the chance for anyone that knew or held a social relationship with the deceased to meet and pay their respects to the close family. When they enter the hall, they first go along the two lines and greet each person silently, offering their condolences, then take a seat. This takes place generally for 3 hours (though anyone can leave when they want), and within 10 minutes of the saadri starting a long queue often forms in order to meet the relatives of the deceased. Towards the end, there may be speeches, details of funeral arrangements or a few prayers may be sung. News of the timings and venue of a saadri moves quickly by word of mouth and is often posted on the Jain community website.
Sadly, I go to Saadri’s regularly but one thing that I have noticed for every single one that I have gone to, is that the number of people that attend and pay their respects far exceeds 150. In the case of yesterday, which was for my great aunt’s death, over a 1000 people attended, all having some kind of social relationship with her. She was not a celebrity, did not have a mobile phone and certainly did not have any kind of social media – she was simply a 90 year old woman living in an elderly care home.
I know that Dunbar’s number verifies that 150 is for maintained relationships at one time, but in watching his speech on the TED channel where he describes these relationships as ones where were you to see someone at 3 am in a Hong Kong airport it would be mandatory for you to greet, I would argue that almost all of the people that attended the saadri would greet my great aunt in this scenario. If they wouldn’t then why would they acknowledge sadness at her death. Almost all saadri’s exceed 500 people in attendance and I remember aged 6 being in shock at over 3,000 people attending my foster grandmother’s one.
Maybe this large amount of people coming to a Saadri is unique to the Jain community, in fact maybe Dunbar’s number is not valid in the Jain community (I could come up with many reasons for why this may be the case). I just thought this was interesting to note, and whether you have found my musings on Dunbar’s number inane, I hope that at least you have learnt something about the saadri ceremony.