Christian voters in Thane say they will vote for the candidate who promises to address the shortage of burial space for the community.
The lack of burial grounds has become a hot button issue for the two lakh Christians in the district after the Vartak Nagar police filed an FIR against the parishioners of the Our Lady of Mercy Church for burying a 95-year-old man in a public space.
On March 20, Jessiah Rayan (95) was buried in an open land near the Our Lady of Mercy Church in Majiwada village. The police registered an FIR against his son Justin Ryan and over 15 other parishioners by the Thane Municipal Corporation.
“Jessiah was a well-respected man who had fought in the freedom struggle and had been an ex-serviceman too. In his letter to the police, intimating about the burial procedure, Justin said that we wanted him to be buried with respect,” said Melwyn Fernandes, a social activist from Thane.
“The condition of the burial space in Thane is really poor. In the cemetery near Teen Hath Naka more than three bodies are buried in the same spot despite the encouragement of shroud burial by the churches. There is just no space and all we have been hearing is that we will get space,” Kasber Augustine, another resident from Thane, said. He added, “The problem is though the population of Christians has grown, amenities for us haven’t. The cemetery in Hanuman Nagar is difficult to reach, because of the over 200 steps and even that space is encroached and graves are vandalised.”
Kasber, who is also the head of Thane Citizens Foundation, wrote to the Prime Minister about the issue. “I felt that he should know about the sorry state of the country’s citizens even in death. In order to bury one’s loved one, money has to be shelled out, something that not everyone can do,” he said.
The space constraint in Thane over the years has led the bodies to be buried in clothes, instead of a coffin, and four feet under, instead of the traditional six feet underground. “Shroud burials, that is embalmed bodies wrapped in cloth, instead of coffin burials are now being encouraged by the church priests. In many cemeteries, including the St John the Baptist Church Cemetery located at the teenhath naka in Thane, one can’t dig deep as water seeps in otherwise,” explains Sagar, the helper and caretaker of the cemetery.
The graves have to be reused, with bodies being interred at different depths and in different levels of decomposition. “We maintain a chart to identify the graves that can be opened. Earlier, families used to purchase lands, which would become their land. Now, the graves are just for a period of three years,” Suarez, an undertaker based in Thane, said. While the undertaker charges a fee for the coffin or shroud, even the grave comes at a steep price ranging from Rs 1,500-8,000 for the ground and a simple shroud burial,” Suarez said.
However, Suarez and other undertakers try to convince people to go for a shroud burial. “Even Jesus was buried in a shroud. The bodies decompose faster, if they are kept in a shroud, making it easier for the next burial,” he explained. “The burial sometimes becomes such an exhaustive effort, as we have to reopen and close multiple graves. Sometimes, there’s just no space for the burial, and we have had to turn away the bodies,” Sagar added. For most of the people who are turned away, the next option is the Sewri cemetery, thirty kilometres from Thane. “When we need to send a body from Thane, there are several things needed. We need to take the permissions from Thane Municipal Corporation for transporting a dead body. A similar permission is taken from the BMC. These things might need time, so we need a freezer-box or a portable morgue, for the body,” Augustine explained.
For Thane christian community, there were promises made at the local level for a state of the art cemetery on Ghodbandar road. “However, there is no action and I think it is high time we get a burial space,” Augustine said.
Fernandes, who is one of the 15 parishioners named in the FIR, said, “No one wanted to create a spectacle or break laws on purpose. Instead, we wanted a respectable burial for a senior citizen, where his body is not laid on top of someone else’s bones. We are in the process of applying for bail.”