Thursday, August 10, 2006

In Kerala, cultures intermingle for last rites

Dr Paul Christian, the first dental surgeon in Kollam, died at a private hospital on Monday evening. He was 76.

Dr Christian had a last wish that would carry the news of his death beyond an obituary column. On Tuesday evening, he was cremated in a Hindu crematorium after a prayer service in his parish church, as per his will. Later, his ashes were put inside the family grave in Kollam.

The surgeon, survived by wife and four children, had obtained permission from the Church for his wish ten years ago. Former Kollam bishop Jospeh Fernandez got the Vatican's permission to cremate the bodies of Christian and his wife Pamela once they were dead. The current bishop Stanly Roman endorsed the decision.

What made Christian insist on cremation rather than burial? “He was always close to Indian culture and customs. A decade ago, he had made up his mind to cremate his body. He spoke to the parish priest, who in turn put the matter before the bishop. They granted his wish,” Christian's elder son Kevin told DNA.

“It's high time the Christians turn to cremation of the dead. Burial has become a social problem with the overcrowding of cemeteries. It creates environmental problems too. My father wanted the community to follow his suit,” he added. The family stood by Christian when he announced his wish to deviate from convention.

Both Kevin and his brother Roy are dental surgeons like their father, who studied dentistry in Mumbai and had been practicing in Kollam since 1952. Christian, who belonged to the Latin Catholic community, was active in the social life of his town.

Though many Christian communities have turned to cremation globally, it is still a rarity in Kerala, where the pressure on land is increasing day by day. “We have been experiencing tremendous difficulty for burying the dead for want of space. That's why we have turned to vaults from tombs. We may have to opt for cremation one day,” Fr Paul Antony, secretary to the Kollam bishop, said.

He said the Vatican has approved cremation as a Christian funeral. “The Church does not prescribe any method other than the prayer service. Believers are left with the choice according to their local custom. But our people are yet to accept it. Many of them were emotional when we had to adapt the vault system,” he added.


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