Grave problem of resting the dear dead

A view of Milagres church cemetery in Mangalore. DH photo/Chandrahas Koteakr.

All flesh is grass, and all its glory fades
Like the fair flower dishevelled in the wind;
Riches have wings, and grandeur is a dream;
The man we celebrate must find a tomb,
And we that worship him, ignoble graves.
 — William Cowper, English poet (1731-1800)

But, like Christmas, which falls on December 25, is celebrated on the eve of that day, in Mangalore, the All Souls Day ceremonies start on the evening of November 1 – perhaps on the ground that saints are already in heaven and let us hurry up dispatching the souls waiting in the limbo to join them. On All Souls Day, there are extra masses and provision to earn special indulgences which can be dedicated for the quick liberation of designated souls.

In the Bible, Jesus is quoted as saying that there are ample rooms in his heavenly mansion for all good souls to enjoy their bliss. But, the problem for the dead is here and now – finding enough space to bury the dead. Graves have been an obsession with writers, philosophers and preachers – mostly for their transient glory.

Heinrich Heine, German poet (1800 – 1856) said:
Graves they say are warmed by glory;
Foolish words and empty story.

Sir Thomas Brown, English writer (1605 – 1682) observed that “Gravestones tell truth scarce forty years” and Shakespeare in Merchant of Venice gives a one-liner: “Gilded tombs do worms unfold”.

Despite this accumulated wisdom, we go in for monuments over graves and flowery inscriptions deifying our dead. All that cumulative hypocrisy or sycophancy has landed us in a monumentally grave crisis of finding place to bury the newly dead.

Fearing pollution of the water table and a fall in the market value of their land, people refuse to give up land for setting up burial grounds. It may be noted here that people name their houses on the basis of the view they get from it – Sea View, Dawn View, Valley View, Mountain View and River View. Imagine someone calling his house Cemetery View or Smashan View. It is a matter of image and real estate realities.

Mangalore is also facing a deadly grave problem which needs to be tackled. Part of the problem is due to our anxiety to build monuments which do not allow the burial space to be recycled. There was a time, until the last fifty years, the rich could pay their way to be buried in the church itself and have elaborate marble slabs to cover the graves. So if one goes to pray in the church, one is distracted by the bio-data of the dead and the tributes paid by their beloved with inscriptions on the marble cover.

With increasing crowding of the limited cemetery space, there is a grave crisis in finding space for new burials. Then came the idea of a family buying a grave space where up to three could be buried keeping a decent interval to allow the bodies to disintegrate. So, provisional gravestones are installed, leaving space for the bio-data of subsequent entrants.

Even this was not enough to tackle the persistent grave problem. The church managements hiked the price of grave sites to discourage grave reservations. But, people always find the money to accommodate their beloved dead lest they should haunt them for life. The next innovation was to retrieve the remains of the dead and enshrine them in a niche on the cemetery wall. But, as time advances, even cemetery compound walls become filled and present fresh grave problems to find space for the rest that seek eternal rest.

Perhaps it is time to have long tablets on the compound walls of cemeteries that record the bare essentials of the departed – name, date of birth and death and may be the name of the spouse. Thus, it becomes a public version of the death register maintained by the church. If someone wants to be generous or pompous, he can have the entries in bold letters by paying more. We are not suggesting something new. There are war cemeteries of the British, especially in Chennai, near St. Thomas Mount, which have uniform sleek grave markers with bare citation of names. In this context, it is apt to remember what Thomas Gray, English writer (1716-1771) wrote:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth ever gave,
Await like the inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
If one can find space there!

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