YANGON (AlertNet) – For many in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country, being able to hold a decent funeral for a departed loved one is an important responsibility. In a country where tradition and superstition run deep, a smooth, dignified journey to the next life is seen as integral.
With a third of the country’s population living on less than $1,25 a day, funerals have become costly responsibilities for the poor.
On May 16, AlertNet followed volunteers from the Free Funeral Service Society - a non-governmental organisation providing free burial services to those who can’t afford them, as they help Myanmar’s poor give a dignified goodbye to their loved ones.
Tin Yi, a 65-year-old former filigree maker, passed away early in the morning at his house in Thingankyun, a township in Myanmar’s main city Yangon. His only son, Soe Naing, called the Free Funeral Service Society to cremate him.
The son lived with his late father in a small house in a densely populated neighbourhood. He has no other family members so he had to rely on neighbours and the Society for help with the funeral.
Like many of the urban poor in Yangon, the family is renting a small, ramshackle little hut with a water tank at the front for washing.
The late Tin Yi and his son had been living here for three years at a monthly rate of 40,000 kyats ($48).
Paying for his father’s funeral would have cost Soe Naing roughly a month’s rent, an expense he could not afford. “If not for the Free Funeral Service, it would have cost us a lot of money,” he told AlertNet.
The Free Funeral Service Society, which depends on donations, provides the casket and transport to the cemetery. It also pays for keeping the deceased’s body at the mortuary for up to two days. Soe Naing (in the red shirt and barefoot) decided to cremate his father on the day of his death.
In a corner in Dagon, a poor satellite town of Yangon, 37-year-old Win Htay passed away early in the morning, leaving two young sons and her carpenter husband.
The deceased, a housewife, had been unwell for a long time, said her husband, Myint Than. He said he didn’t know what she died of. The family lives in a rickety one-room thatch roofed hut.
The house is unfurnished, with bare walls and only a few possessions around.
The house doesn’t have a door either, only gaping holes where the door and a window should be.
A neighbour puts a small package of food on top of the coffin, a last meal for the deceased to take with her on her final journey.
Win Htay’s husband, 46-year-old Myint Than, sits with the coffin on the way to Yaeway cemetery. The sign in Burmese reads, “We provide assistance for free.”
Volunteers from the Free Funeral Service Society take the coffin out from the vehicle upon arriving at the cemetery. With around 400 rotating volunteers and a few dozen employees, the Society handles 35 to 50 funerals a day.
The Society has provided more than 100,000 free funeral services since it was set up on January 1, 2001.
A relative hoists the elder son of the deceased for a last look at his mother before her body is cremated.