Cemeteries in Kerala turn eco-friendly

Thiruvananthapuram: Christian cemeteries with decorative tomb stones and shining name-boards will become a thing of past as mainstream churches in Kerala are trying to make burials less stressful to environment.

Extreme difficulty in acquiring burial grounds and soaring land prices are among the factors that have prompted major churches in the state to shift to eco-friendly tombs and reusable graves from the conventional cemeteries.

To start with, some church establishments have banned coffins for burial while some others have prohibited erection of concrete tombs at graveyards.

Instead of tombs stones with glittering name-boards, parishes are asked to lay grasses as signs of burial. Polluting things like plastic flowers, leather footwear and fancy fabrics are also banned on the corpses when they are buried, church sources said.

The management of St Mary`s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam District, which banned coffins and introduced vault system for burial, said space constraint forced them to go for radical changes, without bothering the initial resistance from conservatives. "There are about 2000 families in our congregation. Our 500-tomb cemetery is already full and we cannot think of expanding the burial ground further. So,the church thought about constructing vaults for burials," Fr Jose Chiramel, a former vicar, told PTI.

From this March, burial is done in the newly-built 180-vault complex in Cemetery Junction near Kacheripady, he said. Instead of coffins, specially-designed stretchers are used for bringing dead bodies to churches and for burial services.

Built according to the hygienic norms by the Health Department, the vaults will be clean and can be reused as the mortal remains are moved to a pit, Fr Chiramel said. While ordinary tombs costs around Rs 1000, vaults could be used free of cost at the Basilica, he said.

"Generally, it is difficult for people to accept anything new. So, we initially tried to create awareness about the new system and make a consensus among our parishioners before bringing about the change in a sensitive matter like burial of the near and dear ones," he said.

Chiramel said he had personal experiences like spotting the articles such as leather shoes and other non-degradable articles in a tomb even 17 years after the burial at the church cemetery when the pit was dug up for another burial. "Leather and plastic articles do not decay even after decades. Some families are keen to show their vanity in burial also. Costly coffins, made of expensive woods, also do not get assimilated into soil easily. These things create hurdles while digging new pits," he said.

Permanent tombs and family tombs are also becoming a thing of past, which were the privilege of the rich and influential. Earlier, families could easily buy burial places in the church premises and use them for decades. But, with land becoming scarce, many churches have decided not to allow family plots in cemeteries.

Some churches, to reduce the demand for family plots, have steeply increased the cost to Rs one lakh and above from less than Rs 5,000-Rs 10,000 a decade ago. Public cemeteries, including those of churches, also face objections from people in cities as they are seen as a source of pollution.

"Environmental concerns are also involved in the issue. There are complaints of water sources including wells and tanks in the surroundings of cemeteries getting polluted by the seepages containing decaying flesh. Vaults will be a solution for thus as burial in them would be more clean and hygienic," Fr Chiramel said.

He thinks that the churches would soon be forced to switch over to cremation as the problems of burial are bound to increase in the coming days.

In the initial stage, bodies were buried directly in soil. Then the practice of encasing them in coffins came for the next stage could be cremation, he said. "There is a general belief that Vatican is against cremation. But it is not true. The Vatican Council has allowed cremation since 1965. The `Sabha`, as the Catholic church is called in Kerala, is only against those who defy its basic principles and stand for cremation," Fr Chiramel added.