The Quibble Island Cemetery in Chennai sets a rather serene scene - at a distance from the loud traffic off the main road, the dead rest peacefully in rows of faded graves, some of which date back to the 1800s. There’s no one around, save for a lone caretaker wandering about.
“Not many people come here nowadays, because most of the graves are quite old I think,” says the caretaker. And with good reason - the cemetery has been full for a while now. With many graveyards full, and many others across Chennai filling up, the problem of where to bury their dead has cropped up for many Christians - and some Muslims - in and around the city.
The situation has not escaped the notice of the Church, according to Fr Louis Mathias, the rector and parish priest at the St Thomas Cathedral Basilica, which is in charge of Quibble Island. “It’s a very ancient cemetery divided into two parts, one of which is assigned for Roman Catholics, and the other for the Church of South India. On our side, there is no space for new burials,” he explains.
In order to address this issue, Fr. Mathias says, “According to the law, after seven years, we can bury another corpse on top of the previous one. So, we’ve numbered the graves and asked the family members of the deceased to register themselves, so they become family graves. Direct blood relatives of those buried can use the grave thereafter.” However, he adds, there are also many unclaimed graves, which can be used for new burials following a legal process.
To tackle this shortage of fresh graves in the major Church-owned cemeteries, such as Quibble Island and the Kilpauk Cemetery, the Church has had to resort to other channels, such as directing parishioners to corporation cemeteries like the St. Mary’s Cemetery in Mandavelli. It also wants to buy some land for new burials. This however, is still under process.
On the subject of cremations, Fr Mathias says, “They are allowed, but most people find it difficult to make use of them because of their religious beliefs. Once people come to understand the situation, however, maybe people will accept the method, which would help the situation.”
Muslims in the city, meanwhile, seem to be better off with regard to space in burial grounds. M Mohammed Sikkandar, Member of the Tamil Nadu Wakf Board, which manages most Islamic ‘Wakf’ properties across the state, explains, “Mosques have a burial ground adjacent to, or at a short distance from itself. In Chennai, most mosques still have space for fresh burials.” The Tana Street burial ground spread across 3 to 4 acres is used by residents in Purasawalkam, Kellys, Kilpauk and Periamet while the Peters Road cemetery, spans a 5-6 acre ground.
However, mosques constructed more recently, in newer parts of the city, beyond Porur, Poonamallee are unable to find the space for burial grounds. “In these areas, Muslims are asking the government for space. In some places, such as Periyar Nagar, they have succeeded, while they’re struggling in others,” says Sikkandar. He also notes that some are choosing burial grounds further away from their homes, while others use corporation grounds. Unlike Christians, however, Sikkandar firmly states that Muslims don’t resort to cremation, since “as per Sharia, we have to bury our dead.”
This difference among Muslims and Christians in the cremation of their dead was confirmed in a conversation with Praveena Solomon at the Anna Nagar East Electric Crematorium, who says, “About 20% of our cremations are of Christians, while I’ve seen only one Muslim cremation - which happened to come from an orphanage - in my three years here.” Some Christians prefer cremations because it is stated in the will of the deceased, she adds.
And with the shortage of land expected to get more acute as the years go by, the city’s faithful will soon have to come up with an alternative final resting place for their loved ones.