Thane church breaks law, shows lack of burial land
In December 2015, this newspaper reported that a Thane church asked its members to stop using coffins for funerals. They were told that bodies should be wrapped in shrouds, without coffins, so that the bodies decompose faster and graves can be reused more often.
When the community reacted with an uproar church officials clarified that there was no decree against coffins and they were only encouraging shrouds because cemeteries were full.
The Thane church is in the news again. Two weeks ago, in an act of civil disobedience to protest against the municipal corporation’s failure to provide them with more burial land, church members buried the body of a 95-year-old in a plot that is not demarcated as a graveyard in municipal records.
By burying the body in the church yard, members of the Our Lady of Mercy Church violated municipal and town planning rules. Church members said they had no option but to break the law. Last week, 11 members of the church were arrested. They were released on bail the same evening. “We were tired of waiting for permission to use our own land as a cemetery. We were forced to do something to get the government’s attention; so we took this extreme step,” said a church member.
It is not just in Thane that the desperation over shortage of burial space has led citizens to break municipal laws. In December, officials of a church in Tamil Nadu were accused of illegally disposing of bodies in concrete vaults inside the church though it did not have permission to use the place for burials.
Mumbai and suburbs like Thane are running out of burial space and communities that traditionally bury their dead are being forced to reuse graves more often. Many churches in Mumbai have placed restrictions on sale of permanent graves, or reserving family funeral plots. Mumbai’s largest Muslim cemetery in Marines Lines, where some of old Kokni Muslim families have their own private plots, has put restrictions on the practice. In some places vertical niches are used for burials.
Despite these measures, the city is still running out of burial space. Using shrouds instead of coffins, it is hoped, will allow graves to be used even more frequently as heavy wooden caskets take a long time to decompose.
In the West, the cost of burials and a general decline in religious beliefs has seen cremation rates going up. In the United States nearly half of all funerals end in cremation, having grown from less than 5% in 1950. Cremation rates vary from three-fourths of all funerals in states like Nevada and Washington to one-fifth in the more religious states in the south. In the United Kingdom cremation rates are nearly 80%.
The idea of cremations, however, faces a theological barrier in India. A member of Our Lady of Mercy Church, said, “Burying in coffins has been our tradition. And the land where the burial took place has been with us for the last 500 years (the church traces its origins to Portuguese missionary activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth century; there are ruins of an old church in the area).” In Thane, the municipal corporation did offer the community burial ground, but in the outskirts of the city. There are allegations that companies building multi-storey housing complexes near the church do not want a graveyard in the vicinity.
Bishop Allwyn D’Silva, who had suggested the idea of shroud burials when he headed a Thane church, said, “The municipality should look into the issue and provide more cemeteries for not only Christians but also for Muslims and Hindus. Secondly, the community should also go for shroud burials. If anyone wants cremation the church should allow it.”
D’Silva added that people are accepting new ideas. “Recently, one of my friends donated the bodies of his parents for medical research. We had a memorial service. We should find new ways to deal with the issue of shortage of burial land; it is a big problem. Shroud burial has got acceptance in Vasai. It will take some time for these ideas to find acceptance.”