“What language is he speaking?” I asked Aloysius of the amplified voice drifting from the Holy Family cemetary. We were walking the five blocks from his house (and what would be my home for the next six months) in “Defence Colony” to attend a 7am mass in the cemetary to observe All Souls’ Day.
It was early in the day and early in the winter season; the air was mild and quiet except for thrush song sparking from the almond trees. We neared the white-painted walls and passed through a black iron gate.
“It’s Konkan,” replied Aloysius of the priest’s service. In fact, the entire service was in Konkan – a Sanskrit-based dialect unique to the Goa area. It sounded round and musical to me – definitely different from the Portuguese, Hindi, and Marharathi I’d heard spoken along our twelve-hour journey from Mumbai the previous day.
I snuck quick looks at the congregation standing around us, then bowed my head out of respect for the ceremony and out of reverance of the beauty of the place. The cemetary was organized into square areas delineated by blocks of porous red laterite rock characteristic to the area. Plumed ashoka trees marked either side of the aisle leading up to a pulpit with a tree-limbed base.
I closed my eyes and listened to the familiar rhythm of the Eucharist, where the minister retells the story of Christ’s last supper, and offers bread and wine with the congregation in a “holy communion”. It’s in Konkan not English, but memories creep back from my church-going days as a child.
After communion had been made and church news had been shared (still all in Konkan) Aloysius and I stepped over to the grave sites marked by black wood crosses and blanketed with layers of yellow and orange marigolds, stems of red roses and garlands of white hyacinth. The northern boundary of the cemetary was a wall of “niches” – inset nooks into which ashes were sealed by engraved stone markers.
They were strangers, but a great sadness rose up in me. Unlike All Hallow’s Eve (“Halloween”) and Day of the Dead, this was not a party. All around me parents and children visited what was left of their loved ones. They made the sign of the cross, then gazed sadly down at the markers as if to ask questions.
According to Father Visitacao Monteiro in the Goa Times,
“Since we believe in the resurrection of the dead on November 1, we celebrate th feast of All Saints or our dead bretheren who have ascended into heaven. We invoke them to pray for us. On November 2 we commemorate All Souls Day and pray for those undergoing purificaton in Purgatory. Since they cannot do anything for themselves, we pray for them.”
I felt sad because – though my relatives rest in St. Andrew’s in Mumbai – Aloysius’s are here, including his father Anju, his mother Ivy, and his wife Hazel who’d passed on only five years ago. I never met them, but Aloysius introduced to them in his stories.
A bottle of vinegar and a bottle of whiskey
After the service, Aloysius shared a story about his father Anju, whose remains were handled for the price of a couple of bottles of feni (Goan whiskey). As he tells it, except for an area near the wall of niches, the ground in this cemetary is solid rock and impossible to dig. Because of this, the church has a policy that buried parishoners must be dug up after three years to make room for the newly deceased. To help ease the effort of this grisly task, it’s customary for family members to give the gravediggers a bottle of vinegar and a bottle of feni. The vinegar was for the deceased (to clean the composting bones), and the feni was – for the diggers.
When the time came for Anju, Aloysius knew that his father had had hip replacement surgery only two years before he passed on. Being a practical son, Aloysius reasoned that the practically-new stainless steel replacement hip joint might be of use to someone who couldn’t afford a new one. Instead of a bottle of vinegar and a bottle of feni, he gave the gravediggers two bottles of whiskey to sort through the remains and retrieve the hardware.
Says Aloysius, “The artifical hip was solidly-made and heavy and I thought, even if it can’t be used in surgery it might be useful as a paperweight.” He took the joint to a doctor who thanked him for his good intentions, but the “ball” part of the hardware was made of a porous material and could not be sterilized thoroughly enough to use on another candidate.
“Where’s the hip joint now?” I asked him. He gave it a thought and smiled. “It’s on my desk drawer somewhere,” he smiled, “But I’m not using it as a paperweight.”