Mumbai: Catholics tread cautiously on shroud burial

While it has gained far greater acceptance in neighbouring Vasai, in Mumbai, the issue has been largely left to the people’s willingness as many find it hard not to give the best they can afford to their loved ones in their final journey.

Ashutosh M ShuklaUpdated: Sunday, December 11, 2022, 09:00 AM IST
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Shroud burial carried out in Holy Cross church in Kurla |

On a Thursday last month, as the Pintos buried their loved one at the Holy Cross cemetery in Kurla (West), it was another instance of shroud burial by a Catholic family. While no data are available to say for sure whether the trend has caught on, those in the know say that almost seven years after the Church ruled the practice “acceptable”, the willingness is coming in slowly in Mumbai.

While it has gained far greater acceptance in neighbouring Vasai, in Mumbai, the issue has been largely left to the people’s willingness as many find it hard not to give the best they can afford to their loved ones in their final journey.

The decision to accept shroud burials came from various concerns, such as concern for the environment, shortage of burial space due to the growing population, and timing of decomposition of the corpse. While no precise study has been carried out, a corpse decomposes based on the embalming and medical treatment it has received. So a body given a shroud burial could decompose in a year and a half while that buried in a coffin can take more than two-anda-half years.

“People spend a huge amount on buying expensive coffins, as they feel they need to give their loved ones the best when they are no more,” said Marita Fernandes who chose a shroud burial for her husband almost two months ago. “Some cannot afford to buy expensive coffins and then feel guilty about it. I did not feel guilty at all. An expensive coffin would not help my husband in any way.” Ms Fernandes said she used the money she would have spent on the coffin to feed 120 people as her husband, ironically, was buried on his birthday. “I think their prayers were more important than putting him in an expensive coffin,” she said.

“I have not only given a dignified burial for my husband but also done my part for Mother Nature. After all, ‘we are dust, and to dust we shall return’.” Jude D’Souza, who gave his mother a shroud burial in the last week of November, echoed the feeling.

He also took comfort in the fact that Jesus, too, was buried in a shroud. “I did not feel that I should put a lot of things or have an expensive coffin when my mother passed away,” Mr D’Souza said. “I do not even have the kind of money. And even Jesus was buried in a shroud.” When the Church first came out with a video explaining that a shroud burial is acceptable, some priests chose this mode of farewell for their loved ones to spread the message.

Father Ryan Alex said, “I wanted to set an example in the community and gave a shroud burial to my mother so that the idea is taken further. Even during mass, rather than speaking about the good she had done, the sermon was about encouraging the idea of shroud burial. One shows love and respect by giving an expensive coffin but one also needs to understand one’s responsibility towards the environment. I wanted to show I am caring for the environment and that the trees do not get cut.”

However, unlike in Vasai, where large sections have taken to shroud burial and the priests there are taking a more united stand in favour, the process is slow. Fr Ryan explained, “There was a time when the Harit Vasai movement was going on. Looking at the degradation of the environment in Mumbai, people in Vasai were already conscious about the environment. Hence this found ready acceptance.”

In Mumbai, awareness is being created through parish councils and priests. “The sensitivity of people is kept in mind and it is left to them if they wish to go for a shroud burial,” said Fr Nigel Barrett, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Bombay.

“We have informed parishioners that it is acceptable if they decide to go in for a shroud burial.” Churches in Amboli in Andheri, Orlem at Malad, and Thane are among those that have already moved to shroud burials mainly for lack of space. “It is not that the coffin is not used at all,” said Audie Almeida, one of the partners at St Blaise’s Undertaker in Amboli. “The coffin is used to keep the body and carry it. The special cloth is changed.”

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