Posted on May 5th, 2016

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando Courtesy Ceylon Today

Death is generally referred to the instance at which life ends. The public uses many euphemisms for death such as ‘passed away’, ‘expired’, ‘deceased’ etc. The dead body is denoted as the corpse in a polite reference. It is estimated that about two-thirds out of 150,000 people who die on a daily basis across the globe are age-related.

After Death jpg


Once death occurs the body has to be either buried or cremated. From the time of Adam and Eve, until the days of Abraham, there is no mention as to how our early ancestors disposed of their ‘dead’. Many stories surrounding how to identify whether a ‘person is really dead’ are due to certain cases of ‘dead people’ getting up from their coffins after a day or two! This has been a phobia that existed from the mid-18th century onwards when the public fears grew of being mistakenly buried alive! To ensure that a person was ‘really’ dead, vinegar and pepper were poured into the corpse’s mouth and red hot metal rods (with handles) were poked into the feet or rectum of the dead! Hebrews used to lay the dead body out on the ground or on salt and closed the corpse’s eyes and mouth to ascertain the person is dead for certain.

Mortality is such a detestable outcome that many neglect to do much planning in advance for the disposal of their body once death strikes suddenly. This very fact forces upon the family with a multitude of ill-prepared decisions that need to be made within a ‘breathing space.’ So the bereaved family becomes intimidated first by the customs in society because no one would like to appear as insincere to the dead person. This very reason can push them to rash, unwise and expensive decisions in coping up with the situation in organising the funeral.


Unless the dead person has made known what should be done after his death, the family will be lumbered with decision-making, either to cremate or arrange a burial! In a bygone era, Sri Lankan Buddhists normally cremated the dead, while Christians and others buried the corpse. The pattern had been for the dead body to be kept in the main hall of the house with a traditional lamp at the head of the corpse. Villagers, family members and friends gathered round the funeral house and sat up overnight without isolating the body until the funeral took place (due to superstitious inhibitions).

Cooking is not usually done in the funeral house as neighbours and friends help in feeding the crowds that visit the place until the corpse is removed. Only after the funeral, food is cooked and those who attended the funeral are invited for what is known as ‘mala batha’.

Modern trends

Modern day funerals in Sri Lanka have taken a different twist altogether where the trend has changed completely while the loss of a loved one has turned into an expensive exercise in exhibiting extravaganza in a social drill. In such a scenario the average family can get involved in many things that they do not anticipate. The ultimate result is the bereaved family becoming heavily beholden to banks and/or friends while trying to keep up with the Joneses.

The olden practices of family arranging the funeral from bathing of the body etc., has become part and parcel of the responsibilities of a Funeral Director at present from the moment a person dies. So a member of the family meets up with an undertaker and organises everything from embalming, selecting the type of coffin, in light soft wood or an expensive casket with brass trimmings! The full package, including the charges for using their parlour, hearse, arranging the pyre/pit according to the client’s needs, will cost an arm and leg to the family concerned.

Some choose to keep the body at home and allow the funeral directors to handle the rest by making their (family) own decisions on embalming, the type of coffin, pyre etc., which can be much economical than entrusting the full contract to the undertakers. In such a scenario, some stay overnight and convert the ‘house of sadness’ into an entertaining gladness where gambling for money takes place with the consumption of alcohol on the sly.

Another new development appears to be that the mala batha, and on the 7th day Bana and Alms Giving have turned into a buffet type meal by hiring professional caterers. Whether it is done for the convenience or mere show off, Sri Lankans seem to lose their marbles when it comes to traditional customs.


Some make arrangements in advance to donate their bodies to medical science, in which case medical schools dispose of the remains when studies are completed; upon request, remains are returned to the family.

Others may elect in advance not to have a flashy funeral at all and wish the family or friends to dispose of the body within 24 hours. Very few want to have a simple internment with no publicity at all once they are ‘gone’. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who was renowned the world over was a typical example of one of those who had made such a request. His request ‘not to make his burial either an official or a ceremonial one’ was honoured with only a few friends who gathered at his residence at Ward Place, Colombo 7, and accompanying the cortege to Borella Cemetery; within a matter of minutes everything was over!

Some prefer to erect a gravestone to remember and honour the dead. This too can vary from erecting a simple stone to expensive granite, after purchasing an allocated slot in the graveyard. However, it has to be a family decision and they should never feel pressurised to do what they cannot afford!

People make ostentatious speeches at funerals regarding the deceased — which may be inappropriate, leaving the impression that the person, who perhaps was even well known criminal, is spiritually secure.

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain

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