‘Kanatte’ experiences

Friday, 8 February 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Funeral culture in Sri Lanka has steadily become more Westernised, less recognisable now to a Sri Lankan say of even 

50 years back. Yet behind the appearance there is the native – Pic by Ruwan Walpola 

It is perhaps trite to say that we cannot escape our condition, the here and now. While each individual faces a private reality, together we confront a common reality, in a defined place, at a defined time. 

Living here in Sri Lanka, in these early decades of the 21 Century, is our reality. That we are a Third World country, a weak economy with patchy service standards, is a truth no sane person will deny. Hard as you may try, even in the most insignificant experience, it is not possible to escape that reality, you live in the here and now.

Attending the funeral of a father of a friend it occurred to me that even in death, when all the battles of life are over for the departed, that reality will not let go. 

The deceased, some 80 plus years, was a decent man, contented, with modest needs. His family, to a person, are law-abiding, well-respectable citizens. Many of them have served the State in responsible positions, with dedication. Not being deal-making types, not vulgarly rich; but comfortably upper middle class, living within their means. 

Nature was kind, his death was peaceful, at home, in his sleep.

Like everything created by our systems, the bureaucracy of death is slow, creates anxiety; designed to harass the unwary. Any moment something may be demanded out of the blue. As the person didn’t die at a hospital, the Coroner left the right to cremate blank. Without his consent the cemetery will not allow a cremation. Being Buddhists, the bereaved wife and children, were at a loss as to how the funeral rites could be performed.

And again, like everything else in the system, this rigidity is only a discretion unintelligently understood. Apply ‘influence’ and the bureaucracy of death becomes amenable. 

Notwithstanding the loss of a father, the family had to spend the day using their ‘contacts’ to get the approval to cremate. Most citizens cannot call upon that level of influence. For the helpless citizen, the common recourse is to oil the palm, this is a time when even the humblest will not withhold.

A doctor had given the probable cause of death in his certificate. In this case, the deceased was in his eighties. I do not have statistics of deaths under suspicious circumstances but can assume they are only a minute number. Even to a simpleton it would have been obvious that the deceased had not been subject to any violence, he had no injuries to suggest that. For argument sake, if for reasons known only to the Coroner he suspected foul play, the body could still be cremated, preserving necessary organs.

We can imagine the agony of a faultless family when the obtuseness of a Coroner prevents the cremation of their old father. Not only are the age-old rites not performed, tongues would wag, the family embarrassed unnecessarily. Already broken by the death of a dear one, the family has to endure the mindless injustice done to the living. 

As the family later realised, the only reason for the Coroner’s rigidity was the fact that the person did not die at a hospital. Only way around this is for Sri Lanka to bring in laws making it mandatory for all persons to die at a hospital!

If you engage our bureaucracy long enough it will sooner or later provide light humour. On this score, you will not be disappointed at the General Cemetery office where the reservations for cremations are made. For cremations at the Borella General cemetery there are two rates, Rs. 1,500 or thereabouts if the deceased was a Colombo resident, and Rs. 5,000 if an outsider! How is the residency of the deceased determined? Of course, by the address on the identity card of the deceased! He may well have obtained the identity card 20 years ago and now lives in Jaffna!

My friend had not anticipated this requirement, and in any event did not know where the 80-year-old deceased had kept his identity card. A trip back home to locate it was wasting precious time as well as money, the difference being only Rs. 3,500, they decided to take the out of Colombo rate!

As an aside, I had a similar experience when reserving the crematorium for my deceased mother five years ago. She was 88. Her identity card was with me, but the address on it was somewhat faded, particularly where ‘Colombo’ was written. But the rest of the address, road name and the zoning-5, were clear. 

The youngish clerk there refused to accept that she was a Colombo resident. I told him that she had lived at this Colombo 5 address for more than 60 years. All our documents, including my own identity card, her death certificate, and medical reports bore the same address. Besides, had he ever heard of a Kirula Road anywhere else, or a Sri Lankan city with a 5 zoning? No, in his mind we had obscured the city (Colombo) on my mother’s identity card in order to obtain a concession of Rs. 3,000 from the General Cemetery bureaucrat!

After making the reservation, I asked where the clerk was from. He said Kollonawa. He had to be.

For the cremation of my friend’s father they had taken the newly-constructed crematorium at the General cemetery. I had attended another funeral at this crematorium about two years ago. Located in an area less crowded with gravesites, the new crematorium was an improvement on the existing one. Then it was just commissioned and the structure looked unfinished, even the surroundings were being prepared for landscaping. When everything is completed, we would finally have a dignified place, keeping with the solemnity of the occasion I thought.

Two years later, the place looked the same, half-done, unfinished. Just by the mouth of the pyre were some exposed wires, a wall awaiting completion. Only a part of the structure has been painted, there is no sign of the promised landscaping, the surrounding area is dug up here and there, left mutilated. 

There were two or three surly looking men who were operating the crematorium. Neither in dress nor deportment did they convey a sense of the sombreness of the proceedings. On the contrary, there was a touch of grossness in the way they approached their work, rough men earning a fast buck. Apparently, at every turn the grieving family members need to “look after” (tip) the cemetery staff.

Funeral culture in Sri Lanka has steadily become more Westernised, less recognisable now to a Sri Lankan say of even 50 years back. Yet behind the appearance there is the native. The purpose-built funeral parlour, the inevitable instant coffee in paper cups, large wreaths, electric pyres; like in any other country. 

Then the local element; the endless procession of sympathisers even on a working day, their cars causing long traffic jams, symbolic representation of various institutions the deceased was associated with; they come, work place obligations notwithstanding. Many of the symbolic sympathisers represent, not institutions associated with the deceased, but institutions representing family members. For example, a school where a son-in-law of the deceased was a teacher at some point, may send a posse of school prefects to the funeral home in symbolic sympathy. 

Invariably, the number of “sympathisers” increase in proportion to the “importance” of the deceased or his family. Many more mourn the passing of an important person. There is no difficulty here, ‘short leave’ to attend funerals is a right strongly asserted in the work culture. Sometimes the employer, even provides a vehicle for the workers to attend the funeral. To have known the deceased is not a requirement for the sympathiser. 

When you realise that functionaries like the Coroner, that clerk at the General Cemetery (the clerk works for the Colombo Municipality with hundreds of thousands of employees; all with parents, spouses, siblings, in-laws, the list is infinite) probably attend many funerals, and generally during work hours, the scope of the unspoken problem becomes obvious.

Then, back to the modern, time is of premium value. Since efficiency is called for and urgency required, the Colombo Municipality has installed an up to date crematorium with an imported electric pyre. The pyre is lit with the press of a button (the relatives having solemnly walked around the concrete structure three times).

Walking back after the cremation, we met another funeral procession, more active, almost vibrant. There was a small band leading the procession playing a sombre theme. Behind them in the procession was the coffin being carried by a group of mourners, unlike the funeral I attended where the body was carried right up to the crematorium in the hearse. For those carrying the coffin a path was being laid with long white cloth used as a rug. There wasn’t enough cloth to cover more than a few yards. Once a piece of cloth was walked over, it was hurriedly rolled up and rushed to the front of the procession to be laid down again for the coffin carriers to walk over.

From a person in the crowd I learnt that the deceased was a three-wheel driver, in his forties, a father of two. He had taken to drinking and maybe even drugs. In the hard world he was born into, life would not have been a walk through a rose garden. Now dead, he is beyond all the world’s troubles and crudities. His coffin was borne on the shoulders of his friends and family. As they moved forward over the white rug, the path was cleared for them respectfully. Something that so seldom happened to him when living…

Recent columns