Crowding out the dead

In India Christians and Muslims struggle for scarce burial grounds

Even the dead have to jostle for space in India’s teeming cities. Hindus cremate their loved ones, but the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities usually choose burial—and they fear the practice is under threat. About 185 million Indians belong to the two faiths, with census figures recording 13 per cent of the population as Muslim and two per cent as Christian. “Go anywhere in India and see the graveyards, they are all full,” said Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, chairman of the All India Imam Organization in New Delhi. “The government has been overlooking this issue for decades.” Muslims bury the dead as fast as possible, and disapprove of cremation as they believe there will be a physical resurrection on the Day of Judgment. India’s relatively small Christian community—like many of their faith around the world—are increasingly choosing cremation over burial for reasons of both space and cost. But Father Rebello, chairman of the Delhi Cemetery Committee, said many Indian Christians were hesitant to abandon the tradition of burial. “Several families are turning one grave into a family grave to accommodate all the members—at least four more can be buried in the same place,” he said. “We are suggesting families should start cremating the bodies and recently a priest in Delhi was cremated to promote it but we cannot force anyone.” The concept of family graves, or the “tier” system, where coffins are placed one above the other, originated in India in the southern state of Kerala and has slowly gained more acceptance. Some graves in the city of Chennai have been repeatedly reopened to add more family members, said Francis Fernandes, a local priest. “One family went into a state of shock when seeing a half-decomposed body when they were trying to place the second coffin in their family grave,” he said. But for the country’s Muslims and Christians, the government offers little hope of new graveyards as urban development picks up pace.