The incident of a church in Kerala denying burial to Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra’s grandmother has raised questions over the rights of the faithful, who have gone out of the state for jobs, to ‘rest in peace’ after death alongside their near and dear ones.
The St. John Attamangalam Church at Kumarakom in Kottayam district refused to bury Mary John, maternal grandmother of the actress, stating that she was not a member of the church. They also cited her marriage with a member of the Hindu religion for not giving her a place in the church cemetery.
The 163-year-old church belongs to the Jacobite Syrian sect, which is a constituent of Kerala-centred Malankara Syrian Church, one of the ancient churches in Christendom that traces its origin to St. Thomas, the Apostle.
The committee that administers the church dropped the objection regarding her inter-caste marriage after family members informed them that Mary John was a practising Christian and she had even received Holy Eucharist two years ago at the same parish.
However, the committee was not ready to relax the rule related to the membership of the church. When the family members told them Mary was baptised at the church and was its member until she left for Bihar in search of a job, they were told that she should have renewed the membership before her death if she wanted to be buried at the cemetery.
Though the Kottayam diocese, under which the church comes, pleaded with the panel to allow the burial as a special case, they did not pay any heed to the plea. Finally, the body was buried at the cemetery of another church at Ponkunnam, 55 kms away from her ancestral village, at the instance of Bishop Thomas Mor Themotheos.
Priyanka and other family members left the state with a heavy heart over their failure to fulfill the deceased’s last wish to be laid to rest at the cemetery of her home parish along with her parents and grandparents.
Mary was born to Kavalapara family under the parish. After completing a nursing course in the state, she migrated to Bihar, where she married Dr. Akhouri and changed her name to Madhu Jyotsna Akhouri.
Priyanka is the daughter of Madhu Chopra, Akhouri’s daughter. She was raised by her grandmother and was very close to her. Therefore, the actress took the initiative to bring the body to Kumarakom after she died on 3 June at the age of 94.
When Priyanka, her mother and a few others brought the body from Mumbai on 5 June, the church authorities told them about the rules that did not permit Mary’s burial in the church. Church vicar Fr. Simon Manuel Kidangath said tradition, rules, and the faith were more important to the church than the individual. He said that the issue regarding burial of Mary’s body was blown out of proportion because it involved a celebrity.
“All are equal to us. We do not go by the fame or financial might of the individuals. We would ensure equal justice for all,” said Shins Mathew, the church secretary.
Bishop Thimothios disagreed with him. The prelate said that the parish authorities should have given importance to humanity that Christianity upholds. He felt that the act of the church was inhuman and against Christianity.
The Bishop said that it was unfortunate that the parish did not consider the service Mary and her late husband rendered to the society. The couple were active during the freedom struggle and later in social work. They also served Bihar as members of the Legislative Council.
This is not an isolated incident. Families of many people, who have died outside the state and the country, have faced this problem. This has been causing much concern among those who go out of the state for jobs. More than 25 percent of Keralites working outside the state is believed to be Christians.
“It is impossible for the non-residents to keep their membership in the parent church live since they will not be able to meet the conditions of the membership while they are outside the state, especially abroad. The Church should relax the rule since death is unpredictable,” says Mathew Jacob, a member of the Jacobite Church.
Even those who are living in the state find the burial rules and practices embarrassing. Such instances are more in Malankara Syrian Church since the Jacobite faction is at loggerheads with the Orthodox faction in the church for nearly a century over not only faith, but also the ownership of churches and its properties, including the cemeteries.
The members of these two factions frequently come into arguments with regard to the entry and use of the cemetery. Often, it has gone to the extent of even defaming the corpus brought for funeral. The two sides had recently clashed over the burial of even a senior priest.
In many cases, the law enforcement agencies are forced to intervene. In one case, the police resorted to even lathicharge to disperse two groups that clashed over the burial of the body of a faithful belonging to the Orthodox faction in Ernakulam district. The body had to be finally buried in front of the church.
Different sects of the Church have different rules for burial. But unlike the church at Kumarakom, most of them do not insist on membership in the parent church if the deceased is a member of a church in their place of residence and practise the faith. This is why the Ponkunnam Church allowed the burial of Mary John.
However, almost all denominations of the church are unsympathetic towards those who criticise it. The rebels are excommunicated and when they die their bodies are confined to “rogues pit” (called Themmadikuzhi in Malayalam) located in a corner of the cemetery.
A court in Kottayam had recently fined a bishop and the vicar of a church for refusing burial to a former professor, who wrote a book criticising certain rituals of the church. Terming the action as an infringement of the rights and privileges of the deceased, the court ordered the duo to pay Rs.9.95 lakh to his family.
The church is also mostly unkind to the victims of suicide. Most sects of the church neither allow the body of a suicide victim to enter the church building, nor will the priest be allowed to accompany the funeral procession with prayers.
With the number of suicides rising rapidly in the state over the years, many have been criticising the church for adopting such an “insensitive” stand on the victims. As a result of this outcry, several sects have started amending the rules to provide ‘decent’ burial to the suicide victims if not a proper religious burial.
While the Latin Church, the largest of the three Catholic rites in India, has started taking a sympathetic view to the suicide victims, the Syrian Orthodox Church has recently amended its laws to offer "decent burial" to them.
Burial is the most important of the three rituals that Christians pass through in their life. It is traditionally considered by the Church as a sacred act but many like the Kumarakom church violate the sanctity citing flimsy reasons as in the case of Priyanka Chopra’s grandmother.
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