We’d spent a busy morning, my friend Marilyn and I. Up early to be driven to mass in the village in the cool of the early morning at 7 am. Then a walk round the village with our host, Fr Pratap, to visit many of the families from his parish, followed by a late breakfast of chappattis. Children danced to welcome us, we visited the nuns who taught at the local school, then took a well-earned siesta.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, we were called again. Come, said Father Pratap – he needed to go and conduct a funeral mass in one of the outlying villages in his parish. After a 20 minute drive we arrived in the large village at the church. Everyone was waiting patiently inside the church for us to arrive, seated on the floor, men to one side, women and children to the other. As was the custom, the immediate family of the old man who had died had not eaten since his death in hospital the day before. They had brought him back to his own village to bury him. We felt bad then, that our siesta had delayed the service, Fr Pratap being too polite to wake us.
We were led as guests of honour to the front of the church and seated on plastic chairs next to the open coffin. The only other person seated on a chair was the dead man’s widow. From where I sat, a couple of feet away, I could have reached out and touched his gaunt face, surrounded by garlands of yellow and orange flowers. I could see the cotton wool in his nostrils. I was sad then and thought about going to see my own grandfather at the undertaker’s after his death.
The service was concluded and the coffin carried out to the burial ground beside the church. We hung back and chatted a while to one of the family members in her 20s, who spoke English and had a good job in Bangalore. The family started crying and wailing at the grave while we stood aside, a little embarassed that we had been given such a prominant place in church.
I don’t know why, but this memory has haunted me ever since I wrote a piece on ways that different cultures remember their dead.