Rite of Burial
‘You need to say more prayers to St Michael, the rain is not stopping.’
‘Good idea, I will try the Latin one this time.’
One priest and four altar boys in a moving car under a darkened sky. Today was not a good day for a burial. It was pouring cats and dogs. We were hoping that the rain would stop before we got to the cemetery. Lim Chu Kang is home to farms, military camps and of course, dead people. It is very, very inaccessible. Thankfully we took Father’s car there. Still, the gravesite was not easy to locate. We had to make a few U-turns, even in the narrow lanes of the plot.
‘Are we supposed to turn right now? But it says Chinese Cemetery, not Christian Cemetery.’
The rain had not stopped by the time we arrived. There was little choice but to use the umbrellas, though they were of little help. We carried all the liturgical items and vestments to a nearby shed, where we proceeded to vest. Fortunately we arrived before the hearse and the rest of the congregation.
The newly dug grave was on the far end of the plot, and we had to step over the existing graves in order to get to the other side. I felt mildly embarrassed for the poor souls. We gathered around the grave with our black umbrellas.
The grave is not a mere hole in the ground. It has concrete structures at the edges, almost like frames of a box. The soil was earthly orange. A large digging machine a few meters away was the instrument for this fine handiwork.
We first began with the blessing of the grave. I passed the censer and incense boat to and fro from the brother server behind me. My hands were occupied with the bottle of holy water and a black umbrella. Father began with the prayers.
‘O God, by whose mercy the souls of the faithful find rest, vouchsafe to bless this grave, and appoint Thy holy Angel to keep it; and release the souls of all these whose bodies are buried here from every bond of sin, that they may always rejoice in Thee with Thy Saints for ever. Through Christ our Lord.’
The body was brought forward to the grave. It is not easy to lower a coffin into the grave. The eight gentlemen with the funeral company had attached two wooden spars to the coffin with an elaborate maze of ropes. This allowed the coffin to be suspended directly above the grave. It was not a pleasant or comfortable duty, especially not with this weather. They were dressed in white dress shirts and dark trousers but were totally soaked to the skin. They removed their shoes and socks as well. By comparison, I was reasonably dry under my umbrella.
Father began to intone the Benedictus antiphon, ‘Ego sum resurrectio et vita: qui credit in me, etiam si mortuus fuerit, vivet: et omnis qui vivit et credit in me, non morietur in aeternum.’
‘Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel…’
‘Requiem aternam dona eis, Domine.’
‘Et lux perpetua luceat eis.’ And once more the antiphon.’
‘Kyrie Eleison. Christe Eleison. Kyrie Eleison. Pater noster..’
I passed the holy water forward. And Father sprinkled the body. One normally sees the drops of holy water fly through the air. Not today. The heavy rain washed everything down. In any case, it was hard to distinguish the tears of the bereaved from the rain drops.
It was time for the burial. The gentlemen began to uncoil the ropes. I was amazed with the ropework. It was designed to lower the body bit by bit till the coffin touched the deepest earth.
‘And lead us not into temptation.’
‘But deliver us from evil.’
‘From the gate of hell.’
‘Deliver his soul O Lord.’
Once the concluding prayers were chanted, we turned away and returned to the shed. The mourners began laying flowers in the grave. Words of comfort and courtesy were exchanged at the shelter.
The work being completed, the rain finally began to subside. It stopped while we were driving out from the area. As they say, it never rains, but pours.