THE BUSINESS OF DEATH, IN GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
Christian burials turn larger than life in Kerala
Afuneral serves many different purposes. For some, it is an outlet for grief; for others, a celebration of the life that just ended. In today’s world of hyper-consumerism, it is one more thing—the last occasion to tell the world that the departed soul had a great inning on this earth.
And so, a thriving service industry has sprung up in god’s own country, offering a bouquet of ways to mark the ending of a life—in style. The competition to make the last journey a memorable event has even given a springboard to this thriving sector. The targets for the funeral business are NRIs, and those rich enough to spend millions of rupees burying their loved ones. And just like that, Kerala is slowly adapting to mega-stylish funerals, organised by event management companies.
It was the Christian communities in Kerala—18.4 per cent of the 33.4 million strong population—that first opted for funerals as stylish as the jumbo weddings that are trendy these days. But many others are jumping aboard the bandwagon, and to service this rising demand, several event management companies specialising in funeral services have sprung up in NRI towns.
Among them is Pathanamthitta, about 100 km northeast of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala, known for its sizeable NRI population. Many other areas, like Kumbanad, Pullad, Kozhenchery and the suburbs of Thiruvalla are known NRI pockets too, inhabited mostly by older folk and minors. In places like these, a death is an occasion for a family reunion— as well as an opportunity to show off.
“We began specialising in funeral event management two years ago,” says 37-year-old Aby George, managing partner of Golden Events, based in Pathanamthitta. “We are getting good business.” Aby, along with his friend, Aji Vilavinal, had set up a wedding business in the NRI township three years ago. Then, two years ago, “one of our NRI clients asked us whether we could handle the funeral arrangements for his father. He wanted to organise the event in grand style. We had no experience in organising such events, but we decided to try anyway,” he says about how he chanced upon this business.
According to Aby, a funeral attended by 500 mourners costs about Rs 7 lakh to put together. But if the family wants to go the extra mile—getting a tomb in a church cemetery or taking out advertisements in several different newspapers—they have to spend extra. “We provide complete funeral services,” he says when asked what exactly mourners are buying. “From arranging the coffin and informing relatives to arranging transport and decorations for the home and the cemetery... advertisements in multiple newspapers, installing flex boards and black flags in the neighbourhood, banners and badges for the mourners, snack boxes for the guests, hiring a choir, photographers and videographers, webcasting the event and even ensuring the presence of VIPs and bishops for the funeral.”
But there is a price for everything. Funeral planners base their charges on the client’s demands. “The best part of this business is that nobody is looking for a bargain,” says Aby. “The worst part is we don’t get enough time to make all the arrangements—a maximum of two to three days.” His biggest challenge, he says, is in creating a melancholic and solemn mood during the funeral ceremony. “It’s very difficult when the family of the deceased does not have social contacts in their area. We then arrange for a crowd of people when the coffin is brought home.”
Aby also mentions that some families ask for local MLAs and MPs to attend the funerals; this, too, is something he arranges, charging anywhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 for the privilege. “Our success depends on how well we boost the client’s ego. Their satisfaction is our profit,” he adds. Webcasting of the funeral, he says, is the latest craze among NRIs. “Digital funerals are much in demand. Many people approach us for webcast services alone, as most of their relatives are abroad and cannot attend.” Demand is high enough for several firms to specialise in these services: Live Mobicast, Vsquare TV, We Do Live, Jewel Labs, Thalsamaya and Streamingonlive among them.
Aby, too, is only one of several erstwhile wedding
planners offering funeral services in the Kozhenchery, Thiruvalla and Chengannur areas.
St Stephen’s Orthodox Church in Pathanamthitta is located just 200 metres away from Aby’s office. At 2.30 pm, about 300 mourners assemble at the church to bury a parishioner—Chinnamma Paul from Nannuvakad—in her family tomb. The priest, wearing black robes, begins praying. The service is just short of an hour in length, and ends with the mourners singing hymns as the coffin is lowered into the family tomb.
“Due to a space crunch, we don’t encourage tombs— we are promoting vaults at the cemetery. A family tomb could cost Rs 3 lakh, or even more,” says Sunny Varghese, a trustee of the church. According to him, most churches raise funds through the sale of family tombs. He agrees that there is a great deal of business taking place on this score. “Yes, many people spend lots of money on funerals.”
In Kochi, Executive Events, a leading event management company, is also providing smart solutions for mega funerals. Raju Kannampuzha, managing director of the ISO certified firm, has branded his funeral package ‘It’s Your Day’. The company has a corporate office in Kochi and branches in Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Coimbatore, New York, Edinburgh and Qatar. “It’s a promising business model, much in demand. Within 10 years, funeral event management is going to be a lucrative business in Kerala,” Kannampuzha predicts. He says his company has handled only Christian funerals so far. “Hindus and Muslims have community support in grief. But soon the trend may reach them also,” he says.
Executive Events organised its first funeral for a VIP three years ago. “One of my clients had asked me to organise his son’s holy communion. We had discussions about the event, which was scheduled to take place a month later. Then, I received an emergency call from my client, telling me that I should arrange the event for the next day—with some modifications. He wanted me to handle the funeral services of his father, who had expired. I organised the event, and that’s how I started organising funeral services,” Kannampuzha explains. He adds that it’s not unusual for rich folk to have a list of do’s and don’ts for their own funerals included in their wills, with lawyers standing by to ensure they are taken care of. “I had a rare opportunity—to discuss [the funeral arrangements] with a VIP in Kerala when he was on his death bed at the hospital. He had given me a specific list: he wanted only white lilies, no other flowers and no wreaths on the coffin. He also wanted Bru coffee to be served to mourners, and for the Niranam Rajan team to be hired for choir services,” he says.
Niranam Rajan, 54, a former kathaprasangam (storytelling) artiste, is an essential element at VIP Christian funerals in Kerala. He provides choir services, a custommade chariot to carry the coffin, an audio system and a band. “I was a popular story narration artiste in Kerala and performed across the state. Later, opportunities for performance became fewer, and I shifted to offering funeral prayers. It was an instant hit. So far, I’ve conducted 2,400
funeral services in Kerala. I charge between Rs 50,000 and Rs 65,000,” Rajan says.
Grim as it might be, death brings cheer not only to businesses, but to the church as well—an occasion to collect dues and more from the faithful. The large sums lie in the purchase of ‘family tombs’ at the cemetery. Family tombs are exclusive plots where only close family members are buried. “The culture of having family tombs came to India with colonial rule. Earlier, only the clergy were entitled to them. Feudal lords and aristocratic families had family tombs because they had been responsible for constructing churches in their respective lands. Today, everyone who has money wants a special place to rest in peace for their eternal journey. But the church is discouraging such practices,” says Bishop Mathew Arackal of the SyroMalabar Church, Kanjirappally diocese.
According to the bishop, a lack of space in cemeteries triggered a sudden leap in the prices of the tombs. Many churchgoers, like Jomon John, an NRI from Muttuchira, believe that it’s better to invest in a family tomb to avoid future headaches. “I belong to the Holy Cross Church of the Muttuchira parish, in Kottayam district. I purchased a family tomb for Rs 1 lakh in 2014. The current market rate is Rs 3 lakh. So I’m a gainer. What’s more, my tomb has tree cover also.”
Like him, many others are in a hurry to find a place in a cemetery to rest forever, and the high demand has resulted in soaring prices for family tombs in church cemeteries. Ernakulam, a business hub of Kerala, has the priciest options—costing Rs 10 lakh—followed by Thrissur, the golden town of the state, where prices are around Rs 8 lakh. However, like prices for real estate, costs vary with demand and local factors like urbanisation or in NRI pockets.
“In towns like Angamaly and Aluva, the prices of tombs can go up to more than Rs 8 lakh. Nobody reveals the final sale price, and payment is mostly made in hard cash. In most cases, it’s black money, never accounted for by the purchaser or seller,” explains Joseph Madassery, a local journalist in Aluva. He says that even income tax officials don’t generally bother verifying such transactions.
“Remember, man, you are dust, and to dust you will return,” says Father Paul Thelakat, a reputed theologian and chief editor of Satyadeepam, an English weekly published by the Syro-Malabar church in Kochi. “After death, where you are buried is immaterial. No amount of money will bring the dead back to this good earth or ensure a special place in heaven. But the rich have the tendency to seek extra everywhere. So they try their luck even in their last journey. But the poor have no such vanity; they live a simple life and opt for simple burial,” Fr Thelakat says jovially. But he is aware that simple burials will not make his church rich. So, the trend toward trendy burials cheers churches too.
SERVICES INCLUDE ARRANGING A COFFIN, ADVERTISEMENTS, DECORATION AT HOME, SNACKS FOR GUESTS, WEBCASTING
PERFECT ENDING Vincent Mathew at his Cherupushpam Coffin Shop in Muttuchira, Kottayam
A PLOT OF THEIR OWN A ‘family tomb’ at a Kerala church