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Grave matters

Luis Dias

A relative from Mumbai had once recounted this to me: her father had passed away suddenly and tragically, in the prime of his own life, while the children were extremely young. They grew up with a close bond to their parish church and members of the church youth group, and the parish priest knew the whole family extremely well.

Some years later, they were horrified to find a portion of the cemetery completely dug up, crosses askew, and bones being unceremoniously packed into garish blue plastic bags. She asked the parish priest what had happened to her own father’s mortal remains, and why the family hadn’t even received a courtesy telephone call (there were no mobile phones then) giving them at least some advance notice. No satisfactory explanation was forthcoming.

The personal effects they were handed didn’t match those they had buried their father in, and judging from the messy way the excavation work had been done, there had almost certainly been no sensitivity in ensuring that each grave had been exhumed systematically.

A breakdown of the crucial bond of trust between the church and the parish was unfortunately forever broken as a result.

1990s Bombay is very different from 2018 Panaji, but I couldn’t help remembering this when a meeting of the faithful was organised at the St Inez parish hall on a Sunday morning, 19 August 2018, regarding the ‘redevelopment and beautification’ of the cemetery. It was packed to capacity. This in itself was an indication of the importance the community places on the resting place of their ancestors, and on any plan to ‘redevelop and beautify’ the historic St Inez cemetery. The Freudian slip on the part of the architect in his presentation, when he inadvertently used the word ‘demolition’, and then quickly corrected himself, did little to allay genuine concerns.

The bombshell for me was the ‘window’ (nay, a tiny chink within any window) of less than two weeks for the public to offer their feedback, suggestions and concerns regarding the proposed plans. Crowded as the meeting was, it still represented a mere fraction of the populace that has loved ones buried in the cemetery, in graves and niches. Surely something as sensitive as this requires much more time, to first reach as many people as is possible, both in Goa and beyond, and to allow time for it to sink in, and then offer suggestions (or even objections)? I would have thought that a rational time-scale would have to be at least a year. Why the hurry? Could an impending election next year be just a coincidence, or have anything to do with it?

Yes, the ravages of time have certainly taken their toll, on the retaining wall, and placed a premium on space in an increasingly crowded cemetery. But that still doesn’t explain the tearing haste in the timeline: tender issued on 15 August, public meeting convened on 19 August, and the deadline for responses 31 August! Quite understandably, this was vehemently rejected. An extension was sought, but what the new deadline will be is anyone’s guess. There was a clipboard where some of the public wrote down their contact details; I did too, but so far there has been no update.

Several thoughts come to mind:

  1. Comparisons were made by some people to cemeteries abroad: how uniform, neat and tidy they are in contrast to the uneven widths and breadths of our graves, and the heights of some mausoleums here. Well, that’s only partly true; I’ve been to cemeteries in some English villages and European cities, and their unevenness is just as gloriously chaotic as ours.
  2. Going by the heated differences of opinion in that parish hall alone, could there ever be a consensus that will satisfy everyone in the wider community? And if no consensus is arrived at, how does one then make a decision? Based on what a majority want? Or what some bureaucrat eventually deems to be the best course of action? What if the majority opts for a course that over time turns out to be disastrous? Whatever the decision is, it cannot be reversed. This is why we should all think it through very carefully indeed. Speaking for myself, the track record of the Corporation of the City of Panaji is far from confidence-inspiring, and the hasty timeline only heightens my sense of dread.
  3. What will be the fate of the exhumed remains of those in graves and niches that are unclaimed, for whatever reason, either that word didn’t reach their next of kin here or perhaps in some remote corner of the globe? Can we depend on the authorities to painstakingly label these remains, and shelve them somewhere, but with dignity? It is a fond hope.
  4. The decision to demarcate one section of the cemetery as ‘Portuguese-era’, and therefore ‘heritage’ and to be left untouched, makes only partial sense. Graves and mausoleums on the other side fit that description too.
  5. One reads of the funerals of expat Goans, in the UK, the US, Canada, wherever. In the majority of cases, to my recollection, they are laid to rest, not six feet under, but in an electric crematorium. Isn’t it time we had this option? I say this knowing the vagaries of our electricity supply, but surely there must be ways nevertheless? This will take a lot of pressure off the need for burial plots and shrinking space. My own father often expressed his wish to be cremated (and the ashes then strewn in the Ganga, Himalayas, and I can’t remember where else) in his many “When I die” monologues, several years before his passing. But then he’d also contradict that by wanting his body to be offered up for dissection in anatomy class. On more than one occasion, I exasperatedly said to him “Daddy, if you don’t make up your mind and write it down, I promise you I’ll give you such a Christian burial that you’ll wish you had never died.” And that’s precisely what he got, may his soul rest in peace. But in light of this development (or ‘re-development’ as it’s now being called), I can’t help wishing we had cremated him. We wouldn’t have needed to disturb his eternal rest.

His brother lies in a cemetery in Valencia (Spain) since 1968, and it was my father’s wish that he be brought back to be laid to rest in Goa with the rest of the deceased family. He tried unsuccessfully to bring him home in the 1970s, and after my dad’s passing in 2000, bringing my uncle’s remains home has been on my mind as well, because I knew it meant so much to my dad. But perhaps it was all for the best that he didn’t return home. But who knows? Maybe the Valencian civic authorities have beautified that cemetery and moved him somewhere, unbeknownst to his next of kin? I’ll wait for the dust to settle on our own cemetery first before I try to bring him back.

Categories: Panorama
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