January 2015
#Bandra , 1737 Views
The Business of Death

Author: Harsimran Gill
Photographs: Karen Dias

Meet the faces of Bandra’s funeral industry.

Thelma Poojari is jokingly called the CEO of St. Andrew’s Church. A member of the parish office, she’s the busiest woman on the grounds, the go-to person for solving problems from plumbing issues to staff management. The largest part of her day, however, is spent in determining the final fates of the deceased that are buried in Bandra’s largest graveyard.

Located at the end of Hill Road, overlooking the Arabian Sea, St. Andrew’s was built by the Portuguese in 1575 (a banner at the gate proudly declares that it pre-dates the Taj Mahal by several years). It’s one of the oldest churches in Mumbai and holds roughly 2000 graves within the church grounds, although the actual number of bodies buried there is many times that number. In a city faced with a constant scramble for space, the struggle for land is as cutthroat after death.

Walking through the cemetery with her register of burials and map of graves in hand, Thelma explained how the lack of space led to the establishment of temporary graves and niches. “Out of these 2000 graves, around 500 are temporary. The Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) ruled that within 18 months of burial, the graves must be dug up and the remains taken out. We’ve set our own period of 24 months, after which the bones are moved to the niches and I allot the grave to a new body.”

Two years to the day, the church calls its gravediggers who set about the task of exhuming the remains. If the family can afford it, the decomposed bones are interred in one of the many niches in the cemetery grounds – vertical wall-like structures with small sealable vaults. The high property rates of Bandra have seeped in here as well. A niche in St. Andrews costs Rs 7,000, substantially higher than some other parts of Mumbai. If the amount can’t be met, the remains are placed in a self-explanatory “bone well”.

“The church stopped giving permanent graves in the 70’s,” said Thelma. “The existing 1500 plots are all owned by older families, and over 3 generations may be buried in a single grave. They just have to keep digging and removing bits like the coffin parts from previous burials.” The plots are in high demand and often provoke arguments; in case of any uncertainty over the veracity of claims to the grave, Thelma pulls out the parish record of family trees and carries out her own investigation.

Even whilst orchestrating this game of musical graves and bodily remains, the gregarious 49-year-old is quick to laugh, seemingly unfazed by the morbidity of her task. Although she admitted that she is hesitant about visiting the cemetery after dark, she thrives in her role as Keeper of the Graves. Strolling through the cemetery she rattles off from memory the details of each person’s death, a familiarity borne from intimacy with the local community and their family histories.

“A few months ago, one of the parishioners came to me demanding that her mother be given a plot as close to the main cross as possible because she was such a pious woman,” she snorted, “but I have a rigid system of allotment and whether you’re rich or poor, there just isn’t any space for preferential treatment.”

It’s this same no-nonsense approach that saw her leading the charge in a dispute between Salman Khan’s bodyguards and the local fishing community three years ago. A desire for an unobstructed ocean view from his seafront properties in Bandra’s Chimbai village led the superstar to (allegedly) try and displace the local fishermen and their boats from the shore. “Of course we won. I’m a proud Koli fisherwoman and there’s no way I’ll let anybody make us move our boats from our land,” she recalled with a glint in her eye. Nobody messes with Thelma’s land allotments, dead or alive.

Anthony Rodrigues, Funeral Home Owner
Anthony Rodrigues, Funeral home owner

Sandwiched between the two iconic promenades of Carter Road and Bandra Bandstand lies a less commercial stretch of land. Devoid of coffee shop chains and bejeweled jogging aunties, this little fishing village remains primarily residential. Strolling down Chimbai Road, you’re much likelier to chance upon bhajiya sellers, fried fish stalls, and of course, bright purple coffins. Two of Bandra’s five undertaker services are situated on this narrow road that snakes its way from the end of Hill Road to Jogger’s Park.

Anthony Rodrigues has been running a funeral home out of small shop here for 25 years. He lives in Bandra East with his wife and two grown-up daughters, and he’s been in the business all his life, having spent 15 years working for another funeral home before he set up his own. A quiet, mild-mannered man with a nervous air, he’s a far cry from the stereotype of the morbid undertaker.

Staffed by five people, A. Rodrigues Undertaker & Sculptor takes care of all funeral arrangements from the time a death certificate is produced by the family up until the body is lowered into the ground and covered with earth. And with his years of experience, he’s noticed a few changes in the business.

“Lots of people prefer keeping the body in a mobile morgue in their home nowadays,” said Rodrigues, referring to the refrigerated coffins that can keep a body “fresh” for up to four days, without needing to be placed in a hospital morgue. “It gives them more time to say goodbye.”

After the body is cleaned and dressed, it is eventually placed in a wooden coffin: clients can choose from basic plywood boxes that are priced at Rs 3,000 all the way through to the gleaming, polished coffins that are closer to Rs 50,000. Add in the cost for transportation, a band, grave digging, and flowers, and funerals quickly become prohibitively expensive affairs. “I’ve organized basic no-frills funerals starting at Rs 8,000 to others that have gone into several lakhs,” Rodrigues said. With a crippling lack of burial spaces and the prevalence of temporary graves, churches no longer allow coffins made of sturdier woods such as teak.  Bodies need to decompose as quickly as possible and there’s no room for aesthetics in Mumbai’s densely packed cemeteries.  It’s also taken a toll on the tombstone engraving business – with graves dug up after just two years, clients prefer simple wooden crosses instead of more elaborate (and expensive) engraved tombstones. Cemeteries in Vasai and Thane have even done away with coffins altogether and some believe it’s only a matter of time before the practice makes its way to Bandra.

Till then it’s business as usual for Rodrigues who, at 62, doesn’t have any plans to retire.  But when he does, he’s hesitant about the idea that his daughters might take over. “This job is like being a doctor on duty. You can get a call at any time of night. I don’t want that for my daughters” he said. Even the business of death, it would appear, remains a gendered one.

Joe Vessaokar, The Band Master
Joe Vessaokar, The band master

Everyone on Bazaar Road knows Joe Vessaokar. Just ask for the bandwalla. In a narrow lane off the main street bustling with vegetable vendors and homeware stores, he can usually be spotted practicing the trumpet outside his house in the morning.

Inside the dimly lit cottage that he’s lived in for decades, Joe absent-mindedly hummed a tune as he poked about for old photo albums. Not much has changed over the years; the only new addition to his home is grills on the windows that were installed after a break-in four years ago. Empty quarter bottles of Johnnie Walker are neatly lined up on the windowsill, next to rosaries and paintings of Jesus.  Papers and albums are strewn over all the tables, a mess that only shies away from that most Catholic of possessions – the cabinet of crockery and ceramic figurines.

Growing up with a father who played the baritone horn and nine siblings who were masters of at least one instrument, it wasn’t much of a leap for Joe to fall in to the family occupation. He’s played the trumpet since he was 13 and is an inextricable constant in the lives of Bandra’s Catholic families, performing for over 40 years at their weddings as well as their funerals.

“There weren’t shortcuts in the old days like there are now,” recalled the 64 year old with a benign smile that rarely leaves his face. “Even if the body was in the hospital, it used to be brought home before going to the church. After, we would all be invited back to the house for lunch and the band would always get a shot of khimad,” he said, referring to a hot, spiced coconut liquor that was common among East Indian Catholics.

Nostalgic reminiscing is a role Joe falls into quite easily, lamenting the loss of Bandra’s cottages, its charm and tranquility, and the slow demise of live bands at the hands of electronic music. While easy to dismiss as a man lost in the past, Joe has an exhausting schedule that would put most young ’uns to shame. He performs at contemporary blues and jazz festivals and shows across Mumbai and teaches music in several schools, and that’s aside from the 15 or so funerals that he plays each month with his band, Joseph and the Top Cats.

Starting off with a session of up to two hours at the home of the deceased, the band accompanies the funeral procession to the graveyard and stays until the body is lowered into the ground. While mostly playing for East Indian and Goan Catholic communities in Bandra and its surrounding suburbs, Joe says he’s open to, and has played in, the funeral processions of several faiths. “I just specify that it’s only going to be Western music. I’ve played way too much Dum Maro Dum in bars during the 70s,” he chuckled. His repertoire of stories includes a procession for a 93-year-old Hindu woman who passed away on the last day of her navratri fast in a temple, prompting a joyous procession all the way to the cremation ground, as well as one where a 102-year-old school principal had requested swing versions of all the hymns at her funeral.

As he prepared to begin a lesson with a young trumpeter who walked into his house, Joe said, “You know I’ve never let the sadness of a funeral get to me. For me it was a means to feed myself, practice and improve my art. Till date I never prep what I’m going to play beforehand. It’s spontaneous and comes from the moment.” You could do a lot worse than Joe to play the soundtrack for your final party on Earth.

Karamullah Shah
Karamullah Shah, Grave digger

“You know, medical interns also come to watch like this as part of their program. They don’t always like what they see,” 23-year-old Karamullah Shah said to me, standing thigh-deep in the graveyard of St. Andrew’s Church. He’s been digging for half an hour in the noontime sun and his shirt is completely soaked-through. A family has agreed to have the remains of one of their relatives interred in their permanent grave and Karamullah is in the process of digging them out from the temporary grave in order to transfer them.

Accompanied by 20-year-old Ranjit Gupta, the two men dig graves, deposit and collect bodies from the morgue and prepare them for burial for the Holy Cross Undertakers just down the road. Both of them are migrants from Uttar Pradesh who moved to Mumbai for better jobs. Ranjit has been working with undertakers since he was 14 years but Karamullah started only four months ago. “You get used to it quickly,” he shrugged. “I used to work in a factory earlier. This is equally hard work.”

Historically carried out exclusively by lower castes, the digging of graves and handling of dead bodies remains a taboo job, and a source of discrimination. Thelma Poojari from St. Andrew’s Parish claims that most locals refuse to do the work, opening up opportunities for migrants from the North.  While Ranjit has hidden the nature of his work from his family in Gorakhpur (they think he works in the church garden), Karamullah has no reservations about his job. “Why should I be ashamed of the work I do? It’s an honest living. If I die on the on job one day, how will my family find me if I keep my life a secret?” he said.

It may be an honest living but it’s far from an easy one. In the monsoons, when the graveyard is flooded, digging takes twice the amount of time. Sometimes, bodies take longer to decompose than expected and rotting corpses greet the gravediggers even two years after burial.  Just the previous day there was a mix-up when the wrong grave was dug up much before those two years were up due to an accidental swapping of crosses in the overcrowded cemetery. Thanks to the frequent need to dig up remains, graves are dug no more than four feet deep.

Then there is the prepping of bodies for funerals: Karamullah and Ranjit handle the cleaning and dressing of all bodies, whether male or female, using the clothes that the families pick out and hand over to them. The men often have to be given a shave and the women’s hair combed and neatly arranged. While the natural deaths are easy to handle, deaths caused by by accidents, fires, or other injuries make the task considerably more daunting. Karamullah recalled the worst case he’d seen so far, where a young man fell onto the tracks at the CST Terminus and was cut up into several pieces.  The men had to place all the limbs on a stretcher and put him together in a coffin.

Despite the often-gruesome nature of his work, Karamullah remained impassive while talking about his work, aided by a combination of pragmatism and machismo.  “The men from Uttar Pradesh aren’t really afraid of anything. Even when Ranjit sometimes hesitates during the day, it’s only when he remembers that the hands he’s eating with were covered with blood an hour ago,” he said.

Lily Eshwar Vaghela, Cemetery Caretaker
Lily Eshwar Vaghela, Cemetery caretaker

Despite its name, St. Peter’s Seaside Cemetery isn’t really next to the sea any longer. Land reclamation over the years has placed shanties and the run-up to the Bandra Worli Sea Link between it and the bay.  However as far as final resting places go, it remains an enviable spot. Short, green hedges flank cobbled pathways that converge at the heart of the cemetery, where a cozy chapel holds court. Palm trees sway in the evening sea breeze. In the otherwise cacophonous bustle of densely packed Bandra, it achieves the near impossible – an open expanse of quiet, dotted with raised graves and wooden crosses.

Nestled in one of its boundary walls that confidently proclaims “Life is Changed, Not Ended”, a small black gate is its only entry point. It is here that Lily Eshwar Vaghela can often be found during visiting hours from 4 to 6pm, eyeing visitors with a mix of suspicion and disapproval.

The 60-year-old Gujarati caretaker handles the daily maintenance and running of the cemetery, from overseeing the gravediggers that retrieve remains to sweeping and washing the marble tombstones. But it’s not just work that keeps her in the company of the dead. She lives among them too.

Across from St Peter’s, on the other side of Cemetery Road, is a smaller, slightly derelict plot of land surrounded by a dull concrete wall. The main gate is locked and dusty from lack of use. An arched signboard simply marks it as “Jewish Cemetery”, one of the few burial grounds for the Jewish community in Mumbai, and the only one in Bandra. In one corner of the graveyard stands a tiny one-room cottage where Lily has lived for 40 years. She took over the job of looking after both cemeteries when her husband, Eshwar, died ten years ago, although the Jewish one required barely any attention. No burials have taken place in over two years and visitors are rare. “My husband was a drunk anyway and just lay about,” she said dismissively.

Possessed of a practicality bordering on delightful irreverence, she explained what happens to remains that aren’t claimed by relatives within two years of burial: “Oh we just toss them in with the garbage and burn them. Once in a while we’ll bury them somewhere else.” While being the caretaker of the Jewish cemetery grants her rent-free stay in the cottage and a nominal income of Rs 100 a month, St. Peter’s gives Lily Rs 3,000. Supporting her elderly mother, she has to supplement her monthly earnings with work as domestic help in a neighbouring house. It’s just been the two women in the house since Eshwar’s death. “In the beginning it was scary living alone here. Groups of men would come here to drink, bang on the door and steal pots and bottles of kerosene kept outside the house,” she told me, over the sound of her mother pottering about in the kitchen. The construction of the boundary wall has laid those troubles to rest, successfully keeping out the drunkards, but she scoffed at the suggestion of those within the walls bothering her, “What are these people going to do?” she said, waving at the tombstones dismissively. “They’re dead and gone. It’s the ones who’re alive that you have to watch out for.”