In South Asia, All Souls’ Day is also a tribute to ecumenism

November 5, 2015 by  
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All Souls' DayInternational, November 2, 2015: In major cities in South Asia, the commemoration of All Souls’ Day is a tribute to ecumenism when Protestants and Catholics, a religious minority on the subcontinent, come together at centuries-old British-built cemeteries.

On Nov. 2, the day Catholics and Protestants pray for the deceased, thousands of people in major cities in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka flock to common cemeteries.

With flowers, candles and special prayers, they gather before the graves that the colonial British built to bury their dead.

“It is nice to see the cemetery has turned into a symbol of interchurch cooperation and harmony,” says Father Theotonius P. Rebeiro, chancellor of the Dhaka Archdiocese, commenting about the 16th century Wari cemetery in Old Dhaka.

Protestants and Catholics share the space to bury their dead in Dhaka, the capital of Muslim-majority Bangladesh. In other major cities and towns of the subcontinent, such graveyards have come to be commonly known as “Christian cemeteries.”

“There are many hundreds” of such cemeteries but no precise figure is available, said Peter Boon, secretary of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, which works to identify, record and conserve European cemeteries on the Indian subcontinent and in Southeast Asia.

Thousands of Christians on Nov. 2 come to each of these cemeteries in cities where Christians are a minority among the mostly Hindu, Muslims or Buddhist populations, depending on the country.

Separate, but together

In Pakistan, Karachi’s Gora Qabristan (white cemetery), built in 1843, stands out for its ecumenical unity during the All Souls’ Day observation.

“Some 30,000 people come to pray for their dead and decorate their graves from dawn to dusk on Nov. 2,” Anwar Sardar, secretary of Karachi Christian Cemetery Board, which manages the cemetery, told

A wall once separated the Protestant and Catholic parts of the cemetery until 1981, when it was demolished to merge the space, which houses some 300,000 graves.

Francis Chowry, a 61-year-old Catholic, said normally all feasts are observed in parishes, but “this one is the only feast” observed outside together with Protestants. “All Souls’ Day is unique in the sense that it unites people of different denominations at one place.”

Stephan Sam, a 56-year-old Protestant, who came to make arrangements for a burial, said: “Once you enter Gora Qabristan, it is no more a Protestant or Catholic thing, it is for all Christians. Karachi people, who are mainly Muslims, know only one thing — that this cemetery belongs to Christians.”

Father Rebeiro said the common cemetery in his city also has become “a unique site for promoting harmony among Catholics and Protestants.”

The Rev. David Aniruddha Das, secretary of the National Council of Churches in Bangladesh, a coalition of Protestant churches, agrees.

“The cemetery has brought Christians of all denominations under one umbrella, and this is the biggest sign of harmony among us,” he said.

Paul Joshua, secretary of the Delhi Cemetery Committee, which manages four cemeteries in the Indian capital, said thousands of people come to these cemeteries from morning to evening. “It is like a mela (festival) outside these cemeteries as people try to sell flowers, candles and incense sticks,” he said.

This coming together shows Christian unity, said Alwan Masih, general secretary of the Church of North India synod.

However, more Catholics come to the cemetery than Protestants on this day, according to A.C. Michael, a Catholic and former member of Delhi’s Minority Commission. “It will surely be practical ecumenism if we could have some joint prayers on the day,” he said.

In colonial British-built cemeteries in Sri Lanka, Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics also visit graves with bouquets of flowers and candles on Nov. 2.

“People rekindle old memories and reunite with old friends when they meet at the common cemeteries,” said 72-year-old Father Dominic Swaminathan who works for ecumenical dialogue.

“They help each other clean the graves in the cemeteries and share flowers and even repair the crosses together,” he said.

However, “there are separate services for Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics,” Father Swaminathan said.

Joint administration

Boon noted that in 1949, after colonial rule ended across the subcontinent, the British government decided to leave the task of maintaining cemeteries to local Christians.

The governments of India and Pakistan also gave assurances that they would protect these cemeteries from destruction and desecration, Boon said in an e-mail response to ucanews.

Since the 16th century, when organized Christian evangelization and the history of colonialism began in the region, Christian cemeteries also began to appear. “An estimated 2 million Europeans are buried in the region,” Boon said.

No British organization is now part of the administration of these colonial-era cemeteries, Boon said.

The cemeteries are “owned by the government,” says Father Januario Rebello of the Delhi Archdiocese, chairman of the Delhi Cemetery Committee. The management is a representative team of Christians, he said.

Joshua, the committee secretary, said they manage the cemeteries with fees and other charges. Additional charges have to be paid for frequent cleaning and the upkeep of graves, he said.

An important day

In Karachi, Nadeem Abbas, a Muslim who has a permanent flower stall at the cemetery’s main gate, says that he eagerly awaits All Souls’ Day every year as his sales escalate.

“Many buy flowers from our stall before entering the cemetery. In order to meet the high demand, we have to bring additional flowers from Hyderabad,” the second largest city of Sindh, which is located 160 kilometers from Karachi.

At least some 50 other flower sellers show up from different parts of the city on this day, he said.

It’s the same case near York cemetery in New Delhi’s Prithvi Raj Road. Sunil Singh, who sells flowers outside that cemetery, said business swells on Nov. 2. On normal days, he makes a profit of some 2,000 Indian rupees, or about US$30. But on All Souls’ Day, his profit quadruples, Singh said.

Eric Minj, who works as a cleaner in a Delhi cemetery, told that he looks forward to the day because people who come to pray also give him money. “It is a good day,” he said.

– ucan

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