As Church factions sparred for power, 84-year-old’s body lay in freezer for a week before burial

Vishnu Varma
Eight days after she died, Mariyamma’s remains were laid to rest in a 0.17 acre land owned by the Jacobite faction.

Eighty-four-year-old Mariyamma Philip belonged to the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Christian Church. When she died on July 3, her family wished to bury her at the cemetery adjoining the Kadeesa Orthodox Cathedral in Kayamkulam, Kerala where her husband and forefathers have also been laid to rest.

But an ongoing feud between the Orthodox and Jacobite factions of the Malankara Church over ownership of churches and properties meant her body had to be stored in a hospital freezer for over a week until the tussle could be resolved. Finally on Thursday morning, eight days after she died, Mariyamma’s remains were laid to rest in a 0.17 acre land owned by the Jacobite faction and which has henceforth been designated as it’s official cemetery.

"We don’t wish to get into any more disputes. Let there be a peaceful environment," said Fr. Sabu Zachariach, the local vicar of the Jacobite faction.

"We have two separate churches but only a common cemetery. Because of the feud existing between the two factions of the Church, when someone dies, we usually bury their body supported by a court order. This is what we have been doing since the Supreme Court ruling on July 3, 2017."

In 2017, the top court had upheld the petition of the Orthodox faction giving them control over 1,100 churches over which there were disputes between the two groups.

"This time, after the Supreme Court made new observations on the matter on July 2, we did not get a favourable order from the High Court to bury the dead. Since the deceased’s husband and forefathers were buried in the cemetery, the family wanted her final resting place to be the same. But the Orthodox group did not relent. When the National Human Rights Commission stepped in as well, we searched for a new place and finally decided upon a piece of land we owned that we could use in future to bury our dead," he added.

Earlier this week, Mariyamma’s son Mathew Philip withdrew a petition from the High Court pleading for permission for his mother’s last rites to be carried at the cemetery when he realised that there would not be a favourable decision in the backdrop of the top court ruling. The Orthodox group had submitted before the court that the Kadeesa cathedral in Kayamkulam is ruled according to the 1934 constitution of the Malankara church and that anyone who abides by the same can be buried in the church cemetery.

It also said that if it’s local vicar is approached by the deceased’s family for permission regarding burial, the same would be granted. But the Jacobite faction, instead of approaching the Orthodox group, appealed to the court again citing an inpidual’s right to follow a faith and be buried in the local cemetery. To this, the High Court underlined that the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling on the same cannot be violated.

Fr. D Geevarghese, the vicar of the Kadeesa cathedral belonging to the Orthodox group, said while his faction did not ‘oppose’ the 84-year-old’s burial, it insisted on the family and the Jacobite faction taking the permission of the vicar for the burial.

The feud between the two factions of the Malankara Church is over a century-old after they split for the first time in 1912 before reunifying in 1959. But a decade later, they split again never to unite. Since the early 70s, the Orthodox and Jacobite factions, which together command nearly 16% of the Christian population in Kerala, have been fighting over possession of churches and allied properties. Despite the Supreme Court order of 2017 in favour of the Orthodox church, the Kerala government has been in a lurch over implementation of the order. Both sides have taken fierce positions and have refused to come for conciliatory talks to resolve the dispute.

While the conflict within the local parish in Kayamkulam may have been resolved through a new cemetery, Fr. Zachariach of the Jacobite faction does not see an end to the overall rivalry across the state.

"The interesting thing is that some relatives of the deceased belonging to the Orthodox group applied so much pressure to convert her family after her death. They said, ‘if you come to our side, we will ensure a proper burial’. I can never understand their faith and belief. Can a dead person abide by a belief or a constitution?" he asked.

"My personal opinion is that let the conflict over the Church’s wealth get resolved according to what the court says. But when a person dies, there shouldn’t be a conflict over his/her burial. The government must make arrangements for people of both sides to be buried at a common ground," he added.