LOOKING BACK AT AN OLD-TIME FUNERAL IN GOA
By Armand Rodrigues
Morbid as the subject may be, not many of us can claim to remember what a typical funeral was like, in Goa, years back. Some may have been too young to remember, and others may have missed an opportunity as they were abroad.
Money was always the first concern when anybody passed away. Neutral as Goa may have been, the war meant that money and the necessities of life were in short supply. Also, very few people kept money in a bank and, in any case, the solitary bank anywhere around was in town, which was several kilometres away. So, if you did not have enough funds hidden in your almirah or mattress, you had to borrow from the neighbours, and deposit some items of jewellery with the lenders, as surety.
Funeral homes were unheard of, and so related survivors had to attend to every facet of the funeral themselves. A trusty elder would be hastily despatched to the village church to make arrangements with the parish priest, the grave-digger, the sacristan, the choirmaster, the candlemaker, the confraternity leader and the village crier. Simultaneous arrangements were made to ring church and chapel bells in the village, to signal the death. One ding and two dongs, in repetition, sounded the knell. Another messenger would be sent to the nearest town to fetch a pine-wood type of coffin draped with black cloth and maybe some frilly lace. One size fitted all. A band to play mournful funeral dirges, and marches to accompany the funeral procession, also had to be hired.
A quick inventory had to be made of friends and relatives in other villages. Runners were then sent off in all directions -- mainly on bicycles -- to notify them. Word of mouth was the only way. And woe betide a family that may have unwittingly omitted to inform a relative. Close relatives abroad were notified by telegram, sent through the nearest Post Office.
Families usually had enough rice, but fish, meat, spices and liquor had to be purchased in bulk and immediately. Large metal pans and clay curry-pots had to be borrowed. If the domestic pig was not fattened enough and ready for the table, one had to be bought. Likewise chickens. (Those were the days when a "Papal Bull" permitted families that had paid for it, to eat meat on forbidden days) There was no telling how many people would stay for any given meal or drop in after the interment. Of course, nobody in the village had a fridge.
More often than not, suitable clothing for the deceased had to be made right away. There were no ready-made clothes. To save on expenses, it was not unusual for a man's jacket and shirt to be backless.
People of the same gender would help wash and dress up the corpse. The coffin would be placed in the hall or else in the largest room in the house, and be straddled by benches for the mourners. This arrangement and candlelight vigil could last for a couple of days without the advantage of proper embalming. Flowers would come from neighbours' gardens or be picked in the wild. The activity and wailing in the front of the house would only take second place to the incessant din and clatter in the kitchen in the rear. And, the aromas wafting through the house compensated for any offensive odours that lingered on.
For the funeral itself, the band would play melancholy pieces outside the house, and then accompany the foot cavalcade, with sombre march music, to the church. The coffin would be carried by members of the confraternity to which the deceased belonged. From the church, there would be a procession to the cemetery. The actual interment called for everybody to cast some soil on the lowered coffin.
Back at the house, the kitchen would be a frantic hive of activity. From the cemetery, all would wend their way back to where it all began, to drown their sorrow in copious potions of the potent local brews, and to commiserate with the kith and kin of the dearly departed. Dinner would follow and take on the semblance of a feast, considering that times were lean otherwise, The proceedings would go on well into the night.
All sorrow dissipated, and thirst and hunger satiated, people would gradually start making for home. Batteries for flashlights were simply not available. A burning torch, made of palm fronds, lighted the dark path ahead and also helped keep at bay the demons and evil spirits lurking in the shadows.
Until next time, normalcy then returned to mundane life in a pastoral setting.