Indian Catholic News

Debate on burial issues revived in Kerala churches

Priyanka's grandmother had always expressed a desire to be buried at the St John's Attamangalam Jacobite Syrian Church, Kumarakom.


Though some church officials have dismissed it as a celebrity-fuelled controversy, the bereavement of actress Priyanka Chopra last month has revived a debate on faith and the right of the dead.

St John's Church in Attamangalam in Kottayam district had turned down the wish of Mary John, Priyanka's maternal grandmother, to be buried at her native parish citing she was no longer a member of the parish after her inter-faith marriage.

Critics say this was another of the attempts by the clergy to keep the flock "in check by intervening in matters related to their birth and death".

Malayalam film director Ranjith wrote in a Malayalam daily that dying wish of actor Augustine, who died in November 2013 in Kozhikode district, was to be buried in the same church where he had been baptised. The vicar concerned declined it "saying Augustine used to visit Hindu temples".

With the number of "sufferers" increasing, some among the faithful did fight back. They took the help of the law to "enforce their rights", said Reji Njallani, convener of the Kerala Catholic Reformation Movement.

"In 1996, a local court ordered the Syro Malabar Catholic Church bishop in Kottayam to pay Rs 2.25 lakh to the family of V.K. Kurien Vellayiparambil for denying him burial in its cemetery. As a member of a university senate, he had refused to help a nun who was allegedly found indulging in exam malpractice. Kurien had also criticised the local priest for saying Indira Gandhi's assassination was God's punishment for favouring birth control and abortion laws. The case was later settled out of court," Njallani said.

He cited another case where, in February this year, a lower court in Kottayam had fined the Church of South India (CSI), a Protestant denomination, Rs 9.95 lakh for refusing a proper burial to its former office bearer C.C. Jacob. The retired history professor had been excommunicated after he wrote a book in which he contended that individuals should take decisions on baptism only after they had grown up.

The fee for burial space is also a subject of discussion.

In Thrissur district recently, the Syro Malabar diocese issued a circular fixing the price of a family vault at Rs 1.2 lakh. Those who already owned a family vault were required to pay Rs 60,000 for burying a new corpse. This was challenged in court by a parish member who had bought a vault in 1994 for Rs 25,000. The court upheld her challenge and ordered that she needed to pay only a burial fee of Rs 750.

V.K. Joy, secretary, Joint Christian Council, a confederation of Christian organisations fighting for greater accountability within the church, said the court ruled that every individual had the right to a decent burial.

"What is happening now is that many churches have made cemeteries into money-minting machines and charge exorbitant amounts from the faithful for burial space,” he said.

Joy believes the problem can be solved to a great extent if the state government enforces the Kerala Panchayat Raj (Burial and Burning Grounds) Rules of 1998. “The rules say only panchayats are empowered to make laws on levy of fees for burning or burying corpses but they are never enforced because of vote-bank politics."

Paul Thelekkat, spokesperson for the Syro Malabar Church, agrees there are deficiencies. "There may be rich people who seek tombs for their family or certain individuals. But for an ordinary person, burial is to be done without much economic expenses," Thelekkat said. "An egalitarian outlook has to be maintained, at least on matters after death on earth, leaving the rest to God's judgement."

Source: The Telegraph

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