More than two weeks after 75-year-old Annamma passed away due to age related issues, her body remains at the Kunnathur Taluk hospital in the Kollam district of Kerala, awaiting the District Collector’s permission to bury her in her own church.
Almost 30 kilometres away from Kollam town, Kunnathur is just like any other rural area in the coastal state of Kerala. Nestled amidst the greenery of the quiet Kunnathur taluk, is the Jerusalem Marthoma Church, which is the church of Dalit Christians in this region. Getting through to this church is not an easy task for an outsider, as there is very little access through public transport, apart from a rare auto rickshaw or two that happen to pass by the road now and then. Apart from the people living close to the church, not many are even aware of its existence.
But over the last few days, there has been an unusual series of events in the church. “This is the place where my grandmother wanted to be laid to rest. And we have been running from pillar to post to ensure that she gets buried in this church only,” 27-year-old Rahul tells TNM, as he and a few other men are busy concreting the tombstone for his grandmother, Annamma, at the cemetery of the Jerusalem Marthoma Church.
Annamma’s family is running a race against time as they received a message from the Kollam District Collector’s office on Monday that if they manage to build a fence along the cemetery of the church, as well as finish the tombstone renovation within 14 days, then Annamma can be buried at the Jerusalem Church itself. This is half the battle won, as far as Rahul is concerned, given the obstacles they had to face before this.
Protest against burials in the church
When Annamma passed away on May 13, her family approached the local BJP leaders of Kunnathur, seeking permission to bury her body in the Jerusalem church. The reason? Back in 2014, the residents living near the church, along with the local BJP leaders, protested against the Jerusalem church, alleging that burial of bodies in the church cemetery is polluting underground water, which is used for drinking purposes.
Work going at the Jerusalem church premises for Annamma's burial.
“The BJP leader who led the protest is not from this region. And they were not really protesting because it was polluting the water bodies,” said one of the men who had gathered for the burial work in the cemetery. “Some of them use the cemetery for alcohol and drug consumption and night and therefore don’t want us to use it for burials,” he alleged.
Rahul, who works as a bus conductor in Kollam recalls that in 2014, following the protests, the BJP workers and the locals did not allow the church or anyone to bury any bodies in the cemetery of the Jerusalem church. “The protests turned violent in 2014 and one of the BJP workers had even attempted to attack our vicar that time,” recalls Rahul.
Following the protests turning violent, the District Collector had interfered and stated that only after fencing the cemetery and building burial vaults shall there be any more burials in the cemetery of the Jerusalem church. In the meantime, the church came to a decision that the mortal remains of Dalit Christians who belong to the church will be buried at the Immanuel Marthoma Church, not very far from the Jerusalem church in Kunnathur.
‘No proper burial for Dalit Christians’
Even though the Immanuel church, which also falls under the Mar Thoma sabha, allowed the burial of Dalit Christians from the Jerusalem church, the area given for the burial was, “worse than that of a themmadi kuzhi (pits where people who die by suicide are buried),” allege members of the Jerusalem church.
Rahul claims that the burial ground that was given to the Dalit Christians was near the urinal of the church, and they were not given the freedom to set up an identification mark or a memorial or anything. “If we bury someone here and come back after a few years to pray, we won’t even know where they were buried,” claims Rahul.
Annamma had decided before her death that she wants to be buried in a respectful manner, and that too in the church she belonged to. Following her death, when her family members approached the BJP workers seeking permission, the latter protested, following which family members approached the District Collector.
The Collector had sought a report from the Kunnathur panchayat regarding the water pollution issue, and based on the reports prepared by the panchayat and the officials from the Collector’s office, it was found that there was no issue with burying bodies in the church cemetery. The Collector’s office then sent a message instructing the church to build a fence and a burial vault, after which they can bury Annamma’s body in the church.
Burial in the same place as her son
“It was Ammachi’s wish to be buried in the same place as my father,” Rahul tells TNM. His father was buried in the cemetery of the Jerusalem church in 1999. And now, the work is going on in that very place to build a burial vault and a tombstone for Annamma.
The present vicar of the church, Father John B Chacko, was also present at the cemetery overlooking the works. But he refused to disclose any information to TNM regarding the stand of the church in this controversy. “Because it is a controversy affecting the church, we need the permission from the bishop before we speak to the media,” said the priest.
“At the moment, we are trying to finish the work as early as possible so that we can conduct the funeral at the earliest. The date of the funeral is yet to be decided,” he added.