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Header image: Courtesy Prof. Rohan Jayasekara, Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (2011 - 2014).
There may be many of you who have
accidentally gone to one funeral house by mistake, but I think I hold the
record for going to three wrong funerals in one evening.
This happened many years ago when my dear mother
was alive. A lady who had done secretarial work for her had just lost her
father, and mum asked me to take her to the funeral house in the outskirts of Colombo. We knew the road,
but not the exact address, and as it was a small side road, I was sure that
there would be some flags strung across the road indicating the venue. We got
to that road, and sure enough there were the customary flags leading to the
house. We made our way to the entrance, and solemnly shook hands with a few
people who looked like the chief mourners, offered our condolences, and were
then ushered into the hall where the body was laid out. Mum thought she should
strike up a conversation with the lady seated by her, and inquired as to how he
died. We were horrified to listen to a ball by ball account of the gory details
of a street fight, where the dead man and the leader of a rival gang had
repeatedly stabbed each other, until this man had fallen unconscious in a pool
of blood. She took great pains to assure us that before he died, he had managed
to lop off his assailant’s ear, and bury his knife in that fellow’s abdomen.
Mum could not believe her ears, and whispered to me,…..” I thought Mary’s ( not
her real name) family were God fearing respectable people, who were pillars of
the Church etc…etc….and Mary does not look the type that has a father who will
go wielding a knife on the road.” No comment from me. I too inwardly shared the
same opinion. While the narrator of the murder episode continued to add more
juicy, gory details which had hitherto been omitted, a tray of concentrated Passiona
was brought around, and mum, thinking it impolite to refuse the drink, helped
herself to a glass. After about fifteen minutes, I suggested that we look for
Mary, for we had come to sympathise with her, and did not know any of her
relatives. We kept asking for Mary, and no one seemed to have heard of Mary. I
thought I would simplify matters by asking for Mary, the daughter of the dead
man. Imagine the shock we got when we were informed that the dead man had no
daughters. We were definitely at the wrong funeral house. Unfortunately, we did
not know Mary’s maiden name, and hence could not ask anyone for directions.
Since this was not a very long road, I was
sure that the house we were looking for would not be far off. We drove a few
yards further, and sure enough another flag indicated a funeral house. We made
our way down a narrow footpath, relieved that our faith in Mary’s family
background was not shaken, and that her father was not a common criminal who
died in a street fight.
Before we knew what was happening, we were
kissed profusely by a host of people and ushered to the area where the coffin
was placed in the sitting room. We came up to the coffin, bowed reverently, and
then nearly died of shock, for inside the coffin was the body of a lady………wrong
number again.What could I do? Beat a
hasty retreat? Meanwhile we were being offered a seat, and mum whispered
something about it being rude to back off immediately, and that we should wait
there for a “respectable” period of time. I was about to warn my mum that on no
account should she inquire about the cause of death, and that she should not
take another drink, when some lady squeezed herself between mum and myself.
Both my fears were realized in the next few minutes, for I could hear someone
giving mum the details of the suspected heart attack that the poor lady was
supposed to have had, while mummy sipped her second drink. I ground my teeth as
mummy added her contribution as to the possible cause of death, instead of
beating a hasty retreat from the second wrong funeral.
It was getting dark as we drove along the
winding road, and I kept wondering what the odds were to have three funerals
down one small road. I was soon relieved to see a flag across the road, and a
crowd of people emerging from a steep alley. At long last (I thought) we had
finally reached our destination. I had just finished shaking hands and
condoling with half a dozen unknown characters, when to my shock and surprise I
saw a string of mango leaves threaded across the doorway…….and the ladies were
in brightly coloured sarees. It was a Hindu funeral, and Mary’s family were
Sinhala Christians. Oh dear! ….could this happen to us again? As fate would have it, mother had said her
little prayer for his soul, bowed to the body in the coffin, and was settling
down to listen to the cause of death. I just couldn’t take any more of this. In
a flash, I rushed up to mum, grabbed her by the arm, told her that I was about
to faint, and fled from the place. It was an ordeal climbing up the steep
incline, and after depositing mummy safely in the car, I sped back home, saying
that three funerals were enough, and that I had given up on locating where Mary’s
father’s mortal remains lay hidden.
The following day I discovered that the
funeral house we missed was just a few yards away from our third ‘wrong