Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Day in the Graveyard

The Indian Christian Cemetery in Pune is "alive” these days, especially the left side of the cemetery that is Catholic. Pune has two big cemeteries on the Solapur Road. The one of the left side is the European Cemetery. That is where the European Christians who lived in Pune during the colonial times are buried. After Independence, Indians who go to some of the mainline churches of European heritage are buried there. As the number of these churches are dwindling, the cemetery is also less frequented. A visit to these churches on Sundays and may make you think that there are more members in the cemetery than in the pews now. The growing younger churches manage the cemetery on the right side of the Solapur highway. That was designated for the Indian Christian population in colonial times and thus got its name as "Indian Christian Cemetery." That is divided as the Catholic and the non-Catholic cemeteries by the unpaved pathway in the middle. If you are Catholic turn left and if you are Protestant turn right!
As you enter workers are waiting for you. "Are you here for cleaning up?” They inquire! They have shovels, and knives. Some boys are ready with paint-buckets and brushes. They will help you clean up the tombs of your dear ones, weed around it and also give it a coat of paint. These workers and those who are visiting the grave of their dear-ones are all over the place. The family members are giving the graves of their dear ones a face-lift well ahead of the All Saints Day that is approaching.
On the left side of the pathway a few steps after the chapel I noticed a little grave. By the size of it I guessed that a very young life is buried there. Judging by the age of the flower plant at the head of the grave, it is not new. It is not built up, no marble, no tombstone--just a heap of mud. It has a metal cross at the head and a few bricks around it. A lady in her late forties has cleaned it up and is giving it a coat of cow-dung. Cow dung is sacred and it is used for polishing the mud-floors in villages. A ten-year-old boy is very keenly watching the skillful movements of his mother’s hand on the smooth cow-dung paste. Another lady, is applying white lime-paste on the bricks around the small grave.
I approached her to find out who is sleeping under that small heap of mud, so passionately attended to. The lady applying the cow-dung was so absorbed in her work and did not bother to answer my question. But the lady with the brush and the lime bucket raised her head to look at me. She said, "It is her sister”, pointing towards the lady with the cow-dung polish. "How did she die?” I wanted to know. She said he doesn’t know the cause of her death. She was also not sure of her exact age at death as well. But only one thing she knows that it was forty years ago that she lost her little sister "Yesther” (Mararthi for Esther). She has kept that grave, protected it all these forty-some years. Now her ten year old son accompanies her to his aunt’s grave. She is celebrating her loss, her brother’s wife who came to her life much later has joined in her grief and in her labor of love! I could sense there a bond that is not broken even after forty years and a bond of love that is being passed on and shared by all those who entered her life.
A few steps away, an man in his later sixties, sitting on a large tomb, is retouching the engravings on the marble tomb stone with white paint. He is completely absorbed in his work.  He raised his head as my camera flashed and smiled at me. I took him for a hired hand. "You do this for a living?” I asked. "No”, he said. "This is my mother and son and that one is my uncle,” pointing to another tomb behind him. He has buried in one grave his mother and 31 years after that his own son who died at 28. That was almost twenty years back. His son was engaged to be married. But just five days before the marriage, he died of massive heart attack. So, he opened the grave of his mother and buried her grandson with her. That is beside the grave of his uncle. "This was brought from Bangalore,” he told me showing the green marble slabs on the graves. His eyes were gleaming with pride. "You can’t get this type of marble in Pune,” he said. He has done something special for his departed dear ones so that their graves will stand out on All Saints Day. He has suffered great loss, mother, uncle and a dear son. His dreams of being a father-in-law and a grand father were dashed. However, he seems to have over come all the sorrows, but the bond of love remains beyond the grave though there may be practically no remains beneath those marble slabs. Twenty years is enough for all that is buried to degrade in to soil. However, love and affection are not biodegradable and memories can never be erased.
I was waiting for the body of my colleague’s husband to arrive! He was a army personnel, served the Lord during his days in the army and after his retirement as a full-time pastor. He pastored a congregation of about 300 people. It was an unusual funeral, some of those who were waiting were growing impatient. The church has decided to have a funeral procession something unheard these days in a city like Pune. Usually there are undertakers who do the job. They bring the body to the cemetery in an ambulance, the family members and friends come in their own cars or public transport. No one takes walks to the cemetery with the body these days.
While were waiting two other funerals were also going on. On the catholic side a body was brought and an altar was quickly put up, candles were lighted. I had nothing else to do and I wanted to find out who is in the coffin. It was a man in his fifties. A small crowd of about fifty people has gathered as they waited for the priest to come. The dead man has a "sindhur” on his forehead and was wearing a red-sports cap! The cap was new, I am sure he did not die in that cap! There was an old lady kissing the dead man and crying in Marathi. But the expression on the face of the dead man was quite sportive. If they held the coffin vertical he would look like a soccer umpire who froze to death! Jolly good guy he probably was in life!
On the other side of the cemetery was another coffin, a very small group of around twenty people are gathered there by the grave. They all came in cars. Nobody is crying, they are waiting for the priest to come! All are well-dressed and spoke English. It was not about the dead man or his family or about the funeral arrangements. Most of them are looking towards the irons gates of the cemetery probably for the priest’s car to come; one or two people are passing occasional glances at the coffin. They seem to be eager to get this over and get back to their life. Death means many things to many people.
Our wait was over. A red car with loud-speaker on its top, a keyboardist and a tabla player inside entered through the rusted iron gates. Three or four men in white shirts and black pants with cloth-bags on their shoulders were walking behind the car leading a procession of about 1000 people. They had microphones in their hands and were singing in Hindi. The huge crowd walking behind them joined in the singing. Whenever the young men stopped singing between two songs the crowd shouted "Yesu Masih ki Jay!” a usual phrase praising Jesus. There was another car behind it inching its way forward through the crowd. They stopped it and pulled the coffin of their dear pastor out and carried it on their shoulders to the grave-side. The young men had stopped singing through the microphone but the crowd continued to sing as they walked towards the grave. The young men had grabbed their keyboard and tabla and ran ahead of everyone to the grave-side. They fixed the loudspeaker on a tripod. Assembled the system and put all things together and began singing before the procession reached the grave. They continued singing in Hindi again through the microphone: "I have a land, I have home in Heaven.” Someone prayed through the loudspeaker in English and it was translated in to Hindi. I noticed that they did not pray for the comfort of the family, the wife who is left behind or the children. But their prayer was that those among gathering who haven’t found the hope in Jesus Christ may find it now! That is the purpose of this public funeral. Then there were few more testimonies; they talked about the their pastors life and faith! The first preacher spoke about eternity and how to follow the deceased pastor to the heavenly bliss. I know there will be another speaker may be one more saying the same thing. They are so excited that they got another chance to explain "the hope that is in us.”
I was exhausted, dehydrated from the long wait in the hot-sun. The pollen from the weeds thriving in the graveyard was irritating my eyes. I had to leave. I walked away leaving the crowd who was turning the funeral of their dear pastor to a evangelistic campaign. I walked past the father adorning the marble grave of his son, passing one more glance at the little grave of Yesther shining with the fresh coat of cow-dung. The English speaking funeral party is still waiting for their pastor to come growing impatient. While the friends of the dead man in red cap and sindhur was proceeding to the grave following the priest.
The poor and the rich meet here. Their poverty and wealth is still reflected in appearance of their graves. Some express their love with cow-dung and lime; some with imported marble. Some are passionate and some detach themselves from the dead. They love life and hate death. But there are still a few bury their dead brimming with the joy of life eternal. They will not visit the grave again, never will they clean it up. Their hope is not in the grave but life beyond the grave!

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