Can't rest in peace

Sep 18, 2011, 03:22 IST | Lhendup G Bhutia

While the state government had announced in February that it would provide burial grounds for Christians at Goregaon, Kandivli, Vasai and Thane, community leaders say they are yet to see action being taken. Muslims, Jews and Baha'is are no better off, and are doing all they can to accommodate their dead, from building bunk-bed graves to exhuming bodies after two years. The crunch is so severe, it has led to spiralling grave and niche prices, making some graveyards more sought

While the state government had announced in February that it would provide burial grounds for Christians at Goregaon, Kandivli, Vasai and Thane, community leaders say they are yet to see action being taken. Muslims, Jews and Baha'is are no better off, and are doing all they can to accommodate their dead, from building bunk-bed graves to exhuming bodies after two years. The crunch is so severe, it has led to spiralling grave and niche prices, making some graveyards more sought after than others, finds Lhendup G Bhutia

Under the hot afternoon sun at Bandra's St Andrew's Church, so fierce that the faithful choose to keep away and the priests prefer to remain indoors, Bhamiyan, the fisherman who doubles as the church help, wears a straw hat and carries a spade while levelling a grave.

Even within the church's premises that stands on the bustling Hill Road, this part of the graveyard is situated on a prime spot. Unlike the rest of the church, which is surrounded by roads that run around it, this bit borders the sea. The deceased, who lies in the grave on which Bhamiyan is working, the mother of a priest, may have an enviable location -- but for only two years.

When the period ends, her grave will be dug, the remains removed, and replaced by the body of
another. The authorities, who will decide when her time is up, are two middle-aged ladies, who have been employed by the church. Today, they are busy at work a short distance behind Bhamiyan, registers in their hands, as they flit from  grave to grave. One reads out details mentioned on epitaphs, the other notes it down.
Looking down at the register with each page divided into three neat columns, one marking the name of the dead and date of burial, the other, the expected date of exhumation, and the last, the condition of the body, Thelma Poojari, looks up to say, "There are a little over 100 graves that are going to become available within a month."

In all, St Andrew's has 1,500 permanent graves and 510 temporary graves. Permanent graves, or those that are owned by individuals, are no longer available in any Catholic or Protestant cemetery in Mumbai. Temporary graves, like the one Bhamiyan is working on, are opened every two years and reused. The remains that are hauled out are either stored in 'niches', small shelf-like vaults in a wall surrounding the cemetery. If the family is unable to afford one, the remains are cast away in a bone well, a tank-like structure that stands within the cemetery.

"What to do?" shrugs Poojari, summing it up in a single phrase, "there is no space". In fact, this is the ground reality for every community in the city that buries its dead. Mumbai's dead are being squeezed. Real estate prices, a burgeoning population, and very few graveyards have made sure of that.

Space for only 150 more Jews
This squeeze is perhaps most evident in the Jewish cemetery on EM Moses Road. The only cemetery for the Bene Israelis in Mumbai, it now has, after a funeral on September 11, only 150 graves left. A total of 6,486 graves are occupied; its first grave dating back to 1927.

Herzel Simon, the Honorary Secretary of the Jewish Cemetery Trust, says the situation within the community is dire. According to him, with Mumbai's Bene Israeli population of between 1,500 and 2,000, and an average of at least 25 burials occurring within a year, there will be no more space after five years. "I don't know whether family members grieving the death of a loved one should be sad or happy that they have at least found space for a burial," he says.

Daniel Bamnolkar, caretaker of the cemetery, who lives here with his wife and two sons, was employed for this job nine years ago. "When I first joined, no such record of the number of available graves existed. But soon, it was evident that such a task was necessary," he says.

Even while discussing this alarming a subject, Bamnolkar does not lose a moment to discuss the cemetery's rich past. He points out famous graves -- Bollywood choreographer Herman Ezra Kolarkar, who worked with the recently-deceased Shammi Kapoor, architect Simon Reuben of the Jehangir Art Gallery, film historian Bunny Reuben, Judah Reuben Nowgaonkar, the first umpire of a Test match between India and England in Brabourne Stadium.

Sadly, all this is in the past. One of its most famous graves, that of EM Moses, a former city mayor after whom the road outside is named, lies adjacent to piles of rubbish, ranging from rotting vegetables in polythene bags to undergarments. Neighbouring garbage collectors hurl rubbish into the cemetery, and complaints have gone unheard.

Three bodies in one grave
It is not just the Catholics and Protestants who are making changes in centuries-old rituals to find solutions. The Baha'i community in Mumbai that follows a monotheistic faith that originated in Persia in the 19th century, has been left with no option but to dig their burial grounds seven feet deep, and bury as many as three bodies in a single space.

The community has about 500 members in Mumbai. They run the Baha'i Gulistan at Antop Hill, a cemetery they founded in 1905. Luckily, before they ran out of space, they were able to secure permission to bury their dead in the neighbouring Armenian cemetery in 1983. However, more space is required, and for the last 10 years, they have been trying to acquire space for a new burial ground. Unable to find a solution, seven years ago, the community passed a decree that allowed two bodies to be buried in a single hole. Here, a concrete and stone vault with two partitions was used. In 2008, they were forced to increase the number of bodies in each vault to three.

Nargis Gaur, secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is in Mumbai, says, "We had to come up with a solution. Otherwise, we would have run out of space, a long time ago." According to Abbas Akhtarkhavari, a member of the community who helps in the upkeep of the cemetery, "There is not much space left. At most, we can accommodate 120 more bodies in vaults of three." The older graveyard still has space for 40 bodies.
While the Catholic and Protestant communities have resorted to niches, even this is a stopgap solution. St Michael's Church in Mahim has already declared that it doesn't have space for any more niches. St Andrew's Church's walls resemble a gigantic structure with drawers stacked atop each other, the topmost requiring a ladder to reach.

Danny Pinto, proprietor of Danny Michael Pinto Undertaker, a company started by his grandfather over a century ago, says, "Soon we will run out of niches too. Then what do we do?" Most churches have asked people not to opt for teak coffins because they lengthen the process of decomposition. Pinto himself usually crafts coffins using silver oak wood on the sides, and plywood at the bottom, so bodies decompose faster.

Father Michael Goveas of St Andrew's Church says, "Cremations are not allowed in our faith. But now the church does not vehemently forbid Catholics from opting for electric cremations." According to Pinto, the space crunch is so severe, it has led to spiralling grave and niche prices, making some graveyards more sought after than others.

"When my grandfather started the business, temporary graves were available for Rs 5, and permanent ones for Rs 50," he says. "Now even temporary graves cost anywhere between Rs 300 to Rs 800. Niches vary from Rs 3,000 to Rs 7,000. It depends on the cemetery you choose. A niche (measuring 21 by 12 inches), in say, a well-maintained St Andrew's Church will cost you Rs 7,000. Elsewhere, for instance, at Sewri Cemetery, where both Catholics and Protestants are buried, it will come cheaper," he says.

Graveyard scam
It is not surprising then, that instances of malpractices have been reported. In July this year, at Mazgaon's Nariyalwadi Muslim Cemetery, FIRs were registered against three caretakers. Permanent grave spaces, like in the case of Catholics and Protestants, are not available and caretakers were allegedly selling small plots meant for temporary graves (bodies here are buried for a year) for anywhere between Rs 50,000 and Rs 2 lakh.

In a move that caused much heartburn last year, the tombstones and remains of famous names of the Hindi film industry like Madhubala and Mohammed Rafi in the Juhu Muslim Cemetery in Juhu were removed. The reason? A three-feet high layer of soil was added to the graveyard to accommodate more bodies. Bada Kabristan at Marine Lines, with over 7,000 graves and seven acres of land, is Mumbai's largest burial ground for Muslims. Here, bodies are dug up after a year.

"Had we not done this," says Ameen Antulay, chairman of the Jama Masjid Trust that runs the graveyard, "even, we the largest cemetery in Mumbai, would have had to refuse bodies." Till quite recently, large spots were available for every burial. Now, the Trust has enforced a rule that makes every grave no bigger than three by seven feet.

Dolphy D'Souza, former president of community group Bombay Catholic Sabha says, "Over the years, the Christian community in the suburbs has ballooned. But there are hardly any cemeteries in these areas."
The Mulund Cemetery, a composite cemetery, for instance, was established in 2006, after a 27 year-long struggle. Here there is space designated for a Hindu crematorium, a Muslim burial ground and one for Catholic and Protestant funerals.

Jude Fernandes, president of the Mulund Cemetery Committee, says, "In 1981, when my father passed away, I had to take his body all the way to Sewri Cemetery. It took us more than two hours. Every member of the community from Mulund faced a similar problem." The cemetery was allotted space after the committee filed a petition in the High Court in 2005.

So far, 480 Christian burials have taken place at the cemetery and not a single grave has been reopened. Work on the graveyard is ongoing and when complete, Fernandes believes there will be space for over 1,400 graves. "When it's packed, I think we will still have enough graves to let bodies stay buried for at least three years," he says.

This sounds dream-like when compared with the situation at St Peter's Catholic Cemetery on EM Moses Road. In the cemetery's bone well, a tank-like concrete structure with six openings through which remains are thrown in, the lid to one opening is missing and another half-broken. Inside, clearly visible to anyone visiting the graveyard, are hundreds of skull-and-bones lying in a giant heap. Some skulls have green moss growing over them; some are so small, they could have only been a child's.

The scene is a far cry from the notions of a dignified death. There is no quiet churchyard, no solitary tree providing shade, no bird singing to the heavens. A piece of earth is prized it seems, even after you are dead.

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