Simple marble gravestones lie flat in the grounds of St Andrew’s Church in Bandra, one of the oldest Roman Catholic places of worship in the Indian city of Mumbai.
The names on the tombs bear witness to the city’s Portuguese heritage, as a groundsman sweeps wet leaves from generations of Da Silvas, D’Souzas, Pintos, Pereiras, Furtados and Fonsecas.
Behind the white-washed church are newer, much smaller memorials, stacked on top of one another like drawers in a high perimeter wall bordering the sea.
Inside these “niches” are the mortal remains of the more recently deceased, whose bones have been disinterred and replaced by those who have died in the last year or two.
The spiraling cost of land and its lack of availability is a major issue for the estimated 18 million people crammed into India’s financial and entertainment capital.
However, increasingly, the squeeze is affecting the city’s dead, prompting changes in -centuries-old rituals, forcing up the cost of burials or leading to practical solutions to tackle space constraints.
“It’s an issue in all the churches. There’s a lack of space,” said Father Michael Goveas, a parish priest at St Andrew’s, where flattened tombstones are found even in the corridors leading to the main church. “We’re no longer giving permission for permanent graves. Anyone who has a permanent [family] plot can still utilize them. For everyone else, we give niches.”
The lack of burial space, a growing problem for minority Christians and Muslims in India’s fast-growing big cities, as well as many countries around the world, is particularly acute in Mumbai.
The local authorities estimate that there is just 0.12m2 of green open space per person, making it one of the most densely populated places in the world.
One solution submitted last year to the US-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat suggested building a tower, with space for Christian and Muslim burials and Hindu cremations.
The idea’s thrust was that traditional solutions were unlikely to succeed, as older churches — and even the newer, state-run public cemeteries in outlying districts — stop providing graves in perpetuity.
“Cemeteries have a system where they don’t leave the bodies for more than two years. Then the bones are moved to an ossuary,” said Father Anthony Charanghat, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Bombay.
One significant consequence of the space crunch is the increasing number of Catholics opting for cremation — the norm among Hindus — which was once viewed by the Church as a denial of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“You used to have to get permission [to be cremated],” Father Michael said. “Now, it’s becoming more widespread ... The idea that if you burn there’s no resurrection doesn’t exist any more.”
“If you’re buried or burnt, it’s the same thing,” Father Michael said.
Demand for burial plots has led some city churches to advocate the use of linen shrouds or coffins made from plywood to speed up the decomposition process, said Dolphy D’Souza, from the Bombay Catholic Sabha, a community group.
“With the sizable increase in population and lack of space, it [burial] has become very difficult and the turnaround has become something like 18 months after the body is buried,” he said. “Sometimes they have to rush it through.”
Protracted disputes have also raged over the allocation of new land reserved for burials and over the building of walls to house the disinterred bones, he said.