Funeral traditions in India


Fr. Tom Cassidy writes from India, where he spends several months of the year assisting with formation and administration in the district:

Yesterday our entire community, save two brothers not feeling well, traveled to Br. Sekhar Adam Nandudri’s village of Lingapuram for his mother’s funeral. It was scheduled for 3:00 pm but as we arrived late, and I’m sure a few others as well, including the assistant parish priest, the funeral did not begin until about 4:00 pm.

Our trip was dictated by the theologate schedule. Our brothers were excused from the last hour but by the time they all biked home and we had our lunch it was closer to 1:00 pm before we got underway. We managed to fit everyone into our van, truck and two motorcycles (one of ours and the other belonging to Fr. Jojappa Chinthapalli, pastor of Sacred Heart parish, Vempadu, who took on one of our brothers for the three-hour journey.

Funeral and burial customs vary around the world, and I’m sure even in India itself. Here in Andra Pradesh things are simple.

The mother’s took place around 6:30 in the morning and by late afternoon her coffin would rest in the earth. Between her death and the funeral Mass she was prepared for burial and while I’m not sure by whom I would suspect women relatives did so, perhaps assisted by women of the village. As India is a hot country a refrigerated glass casket is used to place the body in for what back home we would call a wake. This is placed just outside the house as houses are very small and could not accommodate the crowd.

When the assistant parish priest arrived we had a short prayer service and the placing of her body into a simple wooden casket covered with white cloth and black trimming. A garland of flowers was around her neck much like we place rosaries in the hands of our deceased Catholics in the States.

Most of the priests went to the church before the procession from the house to what really is called a sub-station chapel. It did not take long to hear them coming. Led by our two brother servers and accompanied by the beating of drums and the setting off of firecrackers the mourners moved slowly from the house to the chapel. The use of drums and fireworks seem to accompany almost any type of procession.

The Mass was what we would be used to in the States with a few minor differences. An introduction to the Mass is a regular feature of an Indian Mass. As Fr. Jojappa is our best Telugu speaker he gave it. The main celebrant of the Mass was our formation house rector, Fr. Michael Augustine. One surprising element was the lack of a homily. I was told that the people begin to relax once the body is in the ground.

In seven days there will be a memorial Mass at which time more family members and friends who could not make it to the funeral (as it was on the day of death and therefore very short notice) will be in attendance. The family will also be in a different stage of grieving then. I’m reminded what a good friend of mine Leo Graham, a psychologist, often said: Death is always a surprise.

The burial of Br. Adam's mother

The burial of Br. Adam’s mother

Adam’s mother’s death is a case in point. She had been bed ridden for over seven years and had been in declining health in recent months. Adam went home the day before her death and still it came as a surprise when she took her last breath around 6:30 am yesterday morning. Adam told me he was up with his mother all night and around 5:30 am fell asleep himself, he woke just before she breathed her last. Adam has several brothers and sisters including one brother who basically has been taking care of his mother since an accident crippled her.

The procession to the cemetery did not take long. I was a bit surprised (though probably should not have been) that traffic did not stop nor for that matter slow down as we walked down the highway with drums beating and fireworks going off in front of the procession and honking horns from in back as drivers impatient to be on their way whizzed by.

The burial service was conducted by Fr. Jojappa. At its conclusion but before the casket was closed for the last time Fr. Michael placed a second garland of flowers in the casket, and with the lid nailed shut several men lowered her into the ground. All present took a clump of dirt and threw it into the grave. Completely covering the grave would be left to others as the mourners left to take part in a simple meal.

Two interesting customs not found in the States caught my attention. Except for immediate family no women come to the cemetery. Consequently the crowd of mourners were men and young boys. There is, by the way, no attempt to shield the reality of death from the young. Second, upon arriving back at the house buckets of water were placed so the mourners could wash their legs and feet. This custom, as explained to me, is a precaution against any disease that might be present in the cemetery.

The meal was served as usual with the priests and religious sitting at a long table and men dishing out the rice and side dishes. There was not enough room for all at the table so many of the brothers sat wherever they could find a comfortable spot. Eating with hands and holding a plate is actually rather easy to do.

With the meal ended we said our goodbyes.


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