A Catholic Covid-19 victim is cremated in the cemetery of St. Augustine Church in Mararikulum in the southern Indian state of Kerala on July 27. (Photo supplied)
A funeral pyre in a Catholic cemetery is usually unimaginable in India, where Christians prefer burial to dispose of the bodies of their community members.
Contrary to this belief and centuries-old practice, a Catholic diocese in southern India has decided to cremate Covid-19 victims in parish cemeteries, indirectly adopting a Hindu way of disposing of the bodies of the dead.
Thresiamma Sebastian, 62, a parishioner of St. Augustine Church in Mararikulum village in the Diocese of Alleppey in Kerala state, became the first local Catholic to have a dignified cremation in a parish cemetery.
The parish priest and Catholic volunteers, helped by an outsourcing agency, prepared her funeral pyre with firewood and placed her body on it in the July 27 cremation.
Health officials monitored the entire process. Her body was reduced to ashes within two hours and her ashes were collected in an earthen pot and buried in her family tomb in the presence of one of her family members on the same day.
“We initially wanted to bury her as per our tradition, but we had to reverse the decision and go for her cremation,” parish priest Father Bernad Panickaveettil told UCA News on July 29. “She was accorded all the funeral services given to others.”
Church officials took the unexpected decision to cremate the woman after health officials expressed their concerns over the cemetery being in a low-lying area where digging a grave could lead to water flowing into it and spreading disease through underground water.
The Latin-rite Diocese of Alleppey is mostly based on the coast and most of its parishes face the same situation.
Bishop James Raphael Ananparambil of Alleppey had convened an emergency online meeting with parish priests and lay leaders before it was decided to cremate all those who die of Covid-19 in the diocese.
The prelate in an official message made it clear that the decision to cremate Catholics was restricted to only those who die of Covid-19.
The Church took the unexpected decision, he said, as the funerals of two persons who died of Covid-19 were delayed after the administration’s apprehension about their burial.
The decision, he emphasized, “was the outcome of the Church’s concern for them in such a critical situation.”
Bishop Ananparambil lauded community members, government officials and others who supported the diocesan move.
“It is true that some parishioners were concerned about this move, but we convinced them about the need to go for cremation under the present circumstances,” said Father Stephan Pazhambasseril, the priest of St. Michael Forane Church in Kattoor, where another Covid-19 victim was cremated on July 27.
Mariamma Thomas, 85, was cremated on a funeral pyre prepared in the Forane cemetery. Her ashes were gathered in an earthen pot and given a church burial in the cemetery the next day in the presence of her son.
“I am now 74 and had never heard of a Christian being cremated in a Catholic cemetery anywhere in India,” Father Pazhambasseril told UCA News on July 29.
“It is true that after the outbreak of Covid-19 Christians were cremated in crematoriums outside, but not in Catholic cemeteries.
“This is an occasion for us to rise above our traditions and become more sensible and understanding when the country is fighting a major life-and-death battle with the pandemic.
“As we believe man is created from dust and will return to dust, both burial and cremation will serve the purpose. We need not be so stubborn with our traditions when life matters more.”
In June, the Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Diocese of Trichur allowed the cremation of Catholics who die of Covid-19 despite opposition from laity questioning the move. Cremations can be held anywhere including private land and the faithful must bury the ashes in the parish cemetery within two years.
On July 7, the ashes of Sister Ajay Mary, the Delhi provincial of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, were brought to Kerala and interned in her congregation’s cemetery in Kollam, five days after her death and cremation in New Delhi.