THE BUSI­NESS OF DEATH, IN GOD’S OWN COUN­TRY

Chris­tian buri­als turn larger than life in Kerala

India Today - - KERALA | FUNERALS - By Jeemon Ja­cob Il­lus­tra­tion by ANIRBAN GHOSH

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

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