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Kerala: A destination to die for

Kerala’s listing as one of the 50 must-see destinations of a lifetime by the National Geographic Traveller, and its accolades on socio-economic indicators couch a well-kept secret about the state: that it is a great place to die as well.

Keralites are displaying a sobriety in funeral rituals that may have to do with its high literacy and an awareness about eco-friendly and inexpensive funerals.

Even in a place like Kozhenchery, Kerala’s NRI heartland, funeral rites are hardly ostentatious. Says CK Mathew, vicar of the Maramon Church on the outskirts of Kozhenchery: “Space constraints have added to the cost of owning cemetery space, but the church has put up vaults to address the issue, and for those who cannot afford a private vault of their own, the church has common vaults, too.”

Having served as a priest in the Marthoma Church in Dallas, US, Mathew feels funeral rites in Kerala are down-to-earth, considering the wealth of local people. “In Dallas, undertakers offer packages ranging from $10,000 to $50,000, but in our church all expenses would add up to little more than Rs 10,000. The church charges Rs 500 for cemetery maintenance, the family pays some Rs 1,000 for cleaning the grave, the choir group costs about Rs 3,000, tea and snacks come for about Rs 1,000, the ambulance costs an equal amount, and a shamiana at the deceased’s home is available for Rs 3,000 or so,” he says. The church charges no fee for the rites, and the hearse comes for free.

Photos and videos of the ceremony are optional and most well-off sections avoid them. What has changed over the past decade is the use of refrigerated caskets, known in Kerala as mobile mortuaries. These can cost roughly Rs 2,500 a day, and if family members have to come from abroad, the body is kept in a hospital mortuary where the daily fee is roughly Rs 800.

A quirky aspect of funerals in Kerala’s NRI-rich pockets like Kozhenchery, is the key role that bank managers have. “When a senior citizen dies in my neighbourhood, it is almost always the parent of one of my clients as about 70% of bank deposits here belong to NRIs,” says Mathew George, chief manager of Federal Bank, Kozhenchery. A banker in Kozhenchery who is a constant witness to NRI children rushing home for their parents’ final rites, says the children tend to lavish love on their deceased parents, perhaps because of years of separation or because of the guilt of not having spent enough time with them.

Coffin-store owners have a different take. KR Vijayakumar, who has sold coffins for nearly a quarter century in Kozhenchery, says the trend is towards cheaper coffins. “Until five years ago we sold expensive teak-wood coffins, but now church authorities are also advising us to use cheaper wood that degrades faster. Coffin prices, therefore, have fallen and we now sell coffins priced from Rs 1,000 onwards. Even a good mango-wood coffin comes for only Rs 3,000.” He says the price fall has not hurt business because the profit margin is the same.

What has also changed is the haste and commotion associated with funerals. “Most bereaved families will have someone come from abroad, and therefore the body is first moved to the hospital mortuary or a refrigerated casket, giving the coffin maker enough time to make and decorate the coffin. Even for those without NRI relatives, funerals are delayed because kith and kin or neighbours are busy. This week, the body of a grandmother here was moved to a mortuary because everyone close to her was busy,” says Vijayakumar.

Short URL: http://www.cckerala.com/?p=9087

Posted by on Apr 29 2012. Filed under Kerala News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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