Are funerals with State honours intrusive, used more for political mileage? The dead deserve a more dignified treatment. A look at the practice and the ongoing debate around the issue in Kerala…
A recent issue of a prominent Malayalam weekly carried a request from one of the Kerala's best poets, Balachandran Chullikkad, vocally expressing protest against funerals with ‘State honours'. He did not want his corpse kept for public homage and State honours and ceremonial firing. If his poems can not outlive his life, he says, it is better that he is forgotten. His wife, Vijayalakshmi, in a brilliant poem, expressed it more forcefully.
S. Jayachandran Nair, editor, Malayalam, strongly condemned the manner in which the establishment, society, and media treat the dead. A debate on cruelty to the dead was initiated in an article by Dr. K. P. P. Nambiar, a scientist and writer, returning to Kerala after 25 years abroad. Eminent jurists like V.R. Krishna Iyer condemned the manner in which the dead are exploited for publicity and media intrusions. He advocated that, in a cultured society, funerals should be quiet and serene, avoiding media or ceremonial police firing. The simmering discontent reached a crescendo recently with the cremation of a poet, A. Ayyappan.
Ignored when alive
There was widespread public condemnation of ceremonial firing and display of the dead body during the funeral of the poet, who virtually lived on the streets. Sixty one-year old, A. Ayyappan was found unconscious near Thiruvananthapuram Railway Station on October 21. The police took him to the General Hospital where he died. It was only after 20 hours that he was even identified in the mortuary and that too because he had tucked a poem in his shirt sleeves, to be read out in an award ceremony at Chennai. Soon after the news of his death spread, the media rushed for graphic coverage. Kerala Minister for Culture and Education announced funeral with state honours on October 24. On October 23, the State Culture Department announced that the cremation was postponed to October 25, on the pretext of enabling a few poets and officials assigned for local body election duty to attend the funeral! The incident was in bad taste and forced many to raise a hue and cry. Prof. Sukumar Azhikode, litterateur and orator, echoed the public sentiments in accusing the decision of the Government (Minister) and the State Human Rights Commission took up the matter.
Kerala's political organisations and media companies realised the enormous mileage of a VIP funeral with the death of a former Chief Minister and an adored mass leader, in Delhi on May 19, 2004. His body was kept at two places in Delhi before being flown to Thiruvananthapuram where the body was again displayed for homage and later taken by road to Kannur, facilitating the public to pay homage all over the 500 km-journey with full live telecast, proving the efficacy of satellite television technology. When Congress leader K. Karunakaran died, his funeral received uninterrupted telecast from TV channels that had paid scant attention to him during his lifetime. When the multi-faceted Kamala Surayya Das died in Pune on May 31, 2009, her sons accepted the offer of the State Government for her burial at the Palayam mosque at Thiruvananthapuram. From Pune, her body was taken to Mumbai for the public to pay respect and afterwards flown to Kochi, from where it was taken to Thrissur and kept at the Sahitya Akademi; later it was taken to Thiruvananthapuram and the 300-km-long journey gave opportunity to thousands of people to pay homage. The ceremonial gun firing at the burial ground raised many eyebrows and objection against ceremonial firing became more vocal. The gun fire, destroying the solemnity and quietitude, was condemned. The presence of police men and the firing is a colonial ritual that should have been stopped long ago.
There are many luminaries like writer and cartoonist O.V. Vijayan, music composer G. Devarajan, actor Rajan P. Dev who were brought home to Kerala to receive funerals with State honours. The extensive coverage by television channels and public adulation through the visuals play a great role in generating pressure to bring the bodies of distinguished Keralites home for ‘honoured' funerals.
State Protocol officials estimate that more than 60 funerals with State honours have taken place during the last three years. Soon after the information of a death is received, instructions are issued from the Office of the Chief Minister (the sole authority vested with the power to decide) to conduct the funeral with state honours, to the district civil and police authorities. There are no established or written guidelines on who are all to be provided with this honour. If the body is to be kept for homage, the Government makes arrangements. The Chief Minister/representative places a wreath on the body. Police depute a team with a bugler; immediately on placing the body for cremation, three rounds of blank ammunition are fired producing only smoke and sound.
It is high time society appreciates that the inevitable and irredeemable death is a loss to the immediate family and friends; it would be better to respect the dead by letting the more intimate family and friends grieve. It should not be converted into a road show or a public affair. While alive the persons were vibrant personalities. Showing the corpses in a totally dishevelled condition amounts to sadism. It is not prudent to show on television the distorted faces of the dead and the mourning (real ones) in close up. While the BBC has issued guidelines on the coverage of trauma and the dead to ensure that “funerals are covered sensitively and should avoid intrusive conduct, such as close camera shots of people who are grieving”, there is none in India. Generally coverage contains appalling and repulsive visuals and it is high time that the funerals with “state honours” and the rush for funerals with state honours is re-visited by the right thinking public. Funerals of eminent persons require more dignity and should not be a show business, excepting for great leaders of the ilk of Karunakaran or Nayanar.